A bright sliver of new moon shone from a clear and lively sky, bristling with a multitude of stars. It was certain to be a cold night. Checking her pistol, Abbie Mills automatically scanned her surroundings, surveying the indistinct, dark shapes of the trees. A few months ago, the woods at night would have been the last place that she would have expected to find herself. Now though, the twisted, eerie tangle of tree and shadow seemed almost familiar. "It's a whole new world, Abbie Mills..." she muttered to herself, then slammed her gun into its holster. That was something of an understatement.
"You okay?" She stiffened, but she already knew that it was Jenny, gliding over to join her with remarkable grace. If there was one good thing in this whole, disastrous, supernatural mess in which she had found herself, it was the relationship that she now had with her sister. She and Jenny had been estranged for far too long. Now they were shoulder-to-shoulder when it counted – still awkward around each other at times, perhaps, but growing closer. It was a little light in an increasingly dark world.
"I'm great," she answered, with a small smile. "I'm out in the woods in the dead of night, hunting supernatural creatures that can rip my head clean off at a stroke. Sounds good to me." Jenny smiled at that, her eyes bright with characteristic humour.
"There's never anything good on TV anyhow," she shot back, and looked quickly around. Abbie got the impression that Jenny could see in the dark. There was a lot of the cat about her sister. It suggested something of the life that she had led in their years apart, and as such was as unsettling as it was reassuring. "You think the others are in position?"
"They took the west approach." Abbie looked at her watch, making hurried mental calculations. "They ought to be there by now. You ready?"
"I'm always ready." Jenny sounded cocksure and confident, a smile showing through in her voice – but Abbie knew that it was at least in part an act. Jenny was no thrill-seeker; no fool to rush in blindly. Abbie was beginning to learn that her sister was an excellent partner. Their eyes locked for a second, and Abbie gave a nod.
"Right. In that case, let's get this thing underway."
Half a mile away, at the bottom of a rocky slope, Captain Frank Irving was also checking his watch. Armed with a pump-action shotgun, he was in theory ready for anything – or so he would have believed a few months ago. The problem with fighting the supernatural was that one could never tell when guns would be enough. He saw it as a challenge, up to a point. New problems to be solved all the time, new enemies to learn how to fight. It did have a certain appeal. The drawback here was that failure didn't bring diminished career prospects – it might just mean the end of the world.
"Deep, dark thoughts, captain?" asked Crane, from a stone's throw away. The Englishman had somehow managed to emerge from their long trek through the dark woods with barely a hair out of place, his long coat and ridiculously dramatic boots still looking as though they belonged on the cover of a cheap romance novel. Irving might have glared, if he hadn't had so much on his mind.
"Just the usual," he answered, wishing for a thicker coat and a flask of hot coffee. "End of the world, hordes of demons, hoping I don't get eviscerated by some weird ass creature with too many teeth."
"They wouldn't dare." Crane looked pale in the moonlight, his lightish hair washed of its colour, his pale eyes all but transparent. He looked like a ghost. Given that he had effectively died more than two hundred years previously, maybe that was only fitting.
"They're the denizens of hell, looking to destroy the world. I don't think they're going to consider a small town police captain off limits." All the same, Irving smiled. Crane could be an annoying son of a bitch, stiff and precise and so sure of his position as the smartest man in any room – but he could be a good companion as well. He didn't scare easily. It took a lot to shake his confidence. Maybe anybody would be like that, if they had already cheated death – had met Death on the battlefield and bested him. Irving got the impression that Crane had always been this way though. Maybe he hadn't been saved by magic all those years ago – maybe he had just been too damned arrogant to give up and die.
"You ready?" he asked Crane, checking his watch for the umpteenth time. Crane nodded. Unlike the other three, he was not holding a gun – although he carried one, somewhere in a pocket of his overcoat. Instead he carried a sword, the blade more than half as long as he was, and curved in a wicked, gleaming arc. There were runes carved along the blade, and they showed up now in sharp relief, highlighted in scattered starlight. Crane had identified them as ancient Norse, the blade itself left in the heart of an ancient oak – so the crumbling parchment that had led them to it had said – by one of Leif Eriksson's men, some thousand years before. Magic had kept it bright and true, ready until it was needed again. Irving would have laughed it all off a short time ago, but that had been before he had seen a headless warrior storming the countryside, and fought demons in tunnels built to imprison Death. After that, a magic sword was almost passé.
"I'm ready." There was a squared set to Crane's shoulders as he raised the sword above his head. Around them, reflected light played across the ragged grass and scattered rocks, causing occasional puddles to flare like little patches of silver. Somewhere a wind began to blow, and the tips of the trees began to rustle and sway.
"I sure hope those Vikings knew what they were doing," muttered Irving – but whether they did or they didn't, it was too late to turn back now. As the sword continued to shine, so the runes began to glow brighter – and from out of the woods, dark shapes began to crystallise. At first they were nothing but shadows – bent and twisted like the undergrowth, featureless and dark. As they grew nearer, and the moonlight illuminated them, they took on new form. Legs. Feet. Heads. Eyes that gleamed red, teeth that shone wetly, in mouths gaping and wide. Men, and yet not men, arms hanging too long, bare feet six-toed, grasping and prehensile. Jutting horns above their ears glinted faintly, naked bone with wicked points. Irving caught a breath, and levelled his shotgun. The runes had claimed that the servants of darkness would be drawn to the blade, unable to resist the lure of the moonlight on its enchanted steel. It was a trap, and an elegant one, if they could only be sure to capitalise upon it. Waiting, barely daring to breathe now, Irving watched the creatures creep closer, their little eyes fixed upon the sword held high above Crane's head. Somewhere nearby, Abbie and Jenny ought to be manoeuvring into the best position, ready to strike. Between them they should be able to wipe out the creatures, summoned nearly a week ago to wreak havoc upon Sleepy Hollow. They just had to get the moment right. They just had to wait for the perfect time in which to make their move...
With a whinnying cry fit to chill the blood, the red-eyed mount of the Headless Horseman burst suddenly from the trees, the ground smoking and smouldering beneath its pounding hooves. It glowed in the moonlight, its pure white flanks ethereal, its red eyes in stark contrast to the monochrome night-time world. There was no rider. Irving whirled, caught off guard by the interruption, neck prickling with thoughts of the Horseman's great blade. Around them the demon creatures showed no reaction. They remained focused upon Crane – or, rather, upon the sword held high above his head. Swallowing hard, Irving chose his first target, levelled his shotgun, and considered muttering a prayer. He decided against it. In the heat of the moment he was not sure that he could remember one anyway.
"We know that horse, right?" asked Jenny, as she and Abbie pressed into the scant cover of the scrawny trees. Beside her, Abbie nodded.
"I don't think there's two red-eyed horses in Sleepy Hollow. At least, not with eyes that glow." She turned in a tight, cautious circle. "It's the rider I'm more worried about."
"You think the horse will be out here alone?"
"I think nothing is ever that simple. Not nowadays." Abbie eased closer to Crane and his glowing sword. "Besides, with what we're up to, we can't expect it to go all that smooth. He was always likely to try to stop us."
"You got a plan?"
"Yes, although it's not much of one." Glancing back at her sister, Abbie smiled with little real humour. "We've set a trap. Better close it while we can." Her smile lightened a touch. "And if you happen to have eyes in the back of your head, now would be a good time to show them." Jenny laughed quietly.
"Having a second pair of eyes sounds like a good way to get yourself shot on a night like this." She drew a revolver, standing framed in the bright, crisp moonlight with a shotgun in one hand and the revolver in the other; looking, Abbie couldn't help but think, altogether too well prepared for this. All that was missing was the chainsaw in place of an arm. "Shall we go?"
"Yeah." One hand checking instinctively – almost independently – for her spare ammunition, Abbie gave a curt nod, and stepped forward out of cover.
Her movement was the signal, and the moment that she opened fire, so too did Jenny and Irving. Jenny darted to the right as the gun burst into life, catching the advancing demon creatures from a third side, and all but hemming them in. The horse reared up, its hooves and eyes as bright as the sword blade, but its efforts had no effect upon the creatures. Held captive by the sword, they began to fall to the hail of bullets. It might almost have seemed cruel, were it not for the reality of their true nature – had the four friends not seen their grim handiwork over the course of the last few days. There was a reminder of that dark truth now, for as the bullets tore into them, they imploded in a mess of black, stinking gore, that steamed and bubbled on the cold, hard ground.
The horse whinnied again as the gunfire rose in intensity. It made a beeline straight for Crane, somewhat trapped by the necessity of keeping the sword raised, but Irving had his back, firing at the creature and causing it to swerve away. If the gunfire had any effect upon it, it showed no sign, unhurt by the storm of bullets. The twisted demon men were a different matter. Their bent and spindly forms erupted out of the woods in far fewer numbers than before, the ground now strewn about with their black, sticky remnants; with steaming puddles and the occasional decaying limb. It looked as though Crane's arms were beginning to tire, but with luck it would not matter even if they did – the four of them should have no difficulty mopping up the survivors now. This latest threat to Sleepy Hollow was surely all but over.
Which of course was the moment when branches cracked and rattled, the thin trees at the edge of the clearing bent almost double by the approach of something new. Neither Abbie nor Jenny had any doubt what was coming – and from the way that Crane turned towards the sound, he knew what it was as well. Snapping two trees in half with barely a gesture, his inhumanly broad shoulders seeming to fill the immediate horizon, came the Horseman. The empty space where his head had once been did little to lessen his massive height, and his huge, red-jacketed arms easily batted away even the thickest vegetation. In one giant hand he held a battle-axe, its twin blades as bright and as sharp as Crane's magical sword, and he swung it with ease. They had all seen him use it before. They all knew that the absence of eyes was no barrier to brutal accuracy.
"Crane, look out!" Irving was trying to go to his assistance, but even as he began to move, more of the demons were appearing. They had been held back, clearly some enchantment of the Horseman's preventing a second wave from answering the call of the sword. Now, as Crane was forced to lower the weapon in order to defend himself, the new arrivals had nothing to fear from its magic. There were fewer of them than before, but without the sword to hold them in its thrall there were more than enough. Torn, Crane began to raise the sword into the air once again, but the Horseman was storming down upon him. Not to defend himself would be suicide, and he had no choice but to abandon all thought of the enchantment. Abbie, Jenny and Irving renewed their battle, struggling now, desperate and harried, whilst nearby the two old enemies stood face to face. The noise around about was ceaseless, a buffeting, battering onslaught of gunfire from which there was no relief. It didn't matter. All the noise in the world would not have been enough to distract them from each other. Clenching his teeth in stubborn determination, Crane prepared to meet his enemy's attack.
The Horseman was a vicious opponent. If his supernatural strength and imperviousness to most injury were not enough, his personal vendetta against Crane gave him extra menace, helping to turn him into an unstoppable machine. He did not move fast, but then he did not often need to; lumbering towards Crane with the axe held high he had no reason to fear that he might be thwarted. His huge boots thundered loudly, a blacksmith striking his anvil at every step. Abbie swore quietly, but she could no nothing to help her partner now. Free of the sword's influence, the demons were all about them, gaping mouths flashing vicious teeth, thin, grasping fingers lashing out with deadly claws. Abbie, Jenny and Irving came together, forming a circle to protect each other's backs, picking off the darting, leaping creatures whenever they could.
"How's Crane?" bellowed Irving, who could not see their companion from his new position. Abbie blasted the head off a bounding demon, spraying them both with sticky black gore.
"Alive," was the best that she could say. Crane was moving warily, sword up to protect himself. He had no chance in an outright battle, for what the Horseman might lack in finesse, he more than made up for in impossible strength; and he was no novice with a weapon besides. Abbie knew all too well that Crane's greatest weakness lay with his emotions, for around the Horseman he was rarely in control. If he was to face an undead superhuman and live, he had to keep a cool head, and she only wished that she could be beside him now to remind him of that. 'Cool' was not really Crane's forte.
"Abraham." Moving cautiously, Crane was trying his best to concentrate. He was worried for his friends, and his arms were tired from holding the sword aloft for so long. His training and experience warned him to keep a careful watch on his opponent's eyes, and yet here was an opponent who had none. He tried to watch for body language instead, but whilst he had once known Abraham well enough to be familiar with his moods and foibles, this was in truth no longer that same man – or not entirely. It was at least half monster, dragged back from the brink of death by Moloch, not once, but twice, humanity willingly buried beneath demonic enchantment. Abraham – the Horseman – ignored the perfunctory greeting. Even if he had been able to speak, Crane doubted that he would have bothered.
The first crash of axe against sword near drowned out the sound of gunfire. Crane's legs almost buckled under the impact, but they held. Ducking a mighty follow up swing that whistled over his head, he tried to thrust into Abraham's side, but the Horseman – senses as bolstered as his strength – moved back just in time, the handle of his axe jabbing Crane painfully in the sword hand. He threw a punch at the same moment, and although Crane managed a quick dodge, it caught his shoulder a glancing blow, nearly costing him his balance.
"It's not often that you break cover and come to fight us directly, Abraham," said Crane, as he rediscovered his footing, and blocked another powerful lunge. His only answer was another swing, necessitating another speedy duck, and another hasty struggle for balance. The clash of axe against sword rang out once again – and once again his arms were shaken to the very root. He could not maintain this for long, and he knew it. The Horseman was simply too strong. "Now now," he warned, hoping to irritate his opponent into making a mistake, "you don't want to lose control. Never did have much of a head for battle, did you." The axe whirled about once more, and this time he barely made it out of the way, catching a foot on some of the tough and patchy undergrowth. "Sorry. Bit sensitive about heads, are we?" The axe whistled back, and he met it with the sword again, finding it rather easier to parry a backhanded blow; and for a moment the two old opponents were locked together. Jenny, nearby, realised the danger of this rather sooner than the battle-heated Crane.
"Pull apart!" she roared, ducking a swipe from a long-clawed foot, and blasting apart two of her own opponents with one shot. "He's too strong!" This truth had become rapidly obvious to Crane, for the Horseman had been quick to take advantage, bearing down on the smaller man, bulky sleeves bulging with all the power of his supernatural strength. Jenny fired her shotgun at him, but the bullet seemed to glance off his uniform jacket as though it were made of reinforced steel. Wrenching free of the tangle with Crane, the Horseman let the axe fall to his side, and his free hand dropped like a stone upon Crane's unprotected shoulder. His former friend staggered, but had no chance to fall. Abraham's thick fingers found easy purchase in the collar of Crane's coat, hauling him up until his feet lost contact with the ground.
"Jenny! Behind you!" Firing at a demon that had been about to take advantage of her sister's distraction, Abbie took the time to shoot a brief glance in Crane's direction. She didn't need long to size up the situation – but for now there was nothing that she could do. They had killed many of the misshapen beasts, both before and after Abraham's arrival, but there were still too many of them to make easy fighting. She had no time to spare for her partner. Jenny had come to the same conclusion, and with another, useless barrage of shots towards the Horseman, she was drawn back into her own fight. Crane would have to deal with this alone.
Suspended in his enemy's grip, Crane felt his head swim. A white hot pain radiated from the pinched nerves in his shoulder, and his vision had blurred alarmingly. The fingers of his left hand were going numb, and in his right hand, the sword seemed to grow heavier. He struggled uselessly, then with all the strength that he could muster, began to lift the magical sword once again. Abraham's other hand, mighty axe and all, rose to deflect him, but he feinted desperately, before ramming the hilt of the blade into the bloody mass that was the Horseman's headless neck stump. The giant man wobbled, but his fingers gripped all the tighter, as though they sought to sink through the flesh, and grasp the very bone. Crane brought his weapon down again, and at last Abraham seemed affected, staggering so that he almost fell. At such close quarters it was hard for him to use the axe effectively, and taking up a new strategy, he hurled Crane away from him, sending him crashing to the ground nearby. The landing knocked the air from the captain's body, and he struggled weakly to breathe, seeing the vast, unstoppable form of the Horseman coming towards him, in blurred and swimming vision.
"Lieutenant!" It was all that he could say – the oxygen that was left in his lungs giving him the force only to croak that one, hasty word – but it was enough. Abbie turned to look towards him, and with the last moment that he had left before Abraham was upon him, he threw her the sword. She had to dive to catch it, Jenny smoothly providing cover by alternately firing her two guns in two different directions, her aim lethal and uncanny. Abbie's fingers scrabbled for the ancient weapon, snatching it at last, then swinging it up into the air. The moon was sinking now, but it was still there, and its light was still bright and clear. The runes glowed, burned white, then shone with all the radiating power of their age-old enchantment. Almost as one, the demons fell under its spell.
"I've got this!" yelled Irving, and Jenny gave a curt nod, turning her back on the spindly creatures and racing instead towards Crane. He had rolled aside, avoiding the axe as it fell once, twice, precision abandoned in favour of angry, brute force. Jenny fired as she ran, the bullets skittering away harmlessly, until she was in danger of running out. Abraham did not as much as throw her a glance. Instead, erupting back out of the woods in a shower of dead leaves and broken twigs, came his horse, rearing up as though to crush Jenny underfoot.
She dodged artfully, manoeuvring about as it reared above her, clearly trying to keep her from its rider. She was not easily dissuaded, and swinging about, her eyes never leaving those sharp, dancing hooves, she worked her way back towards Crane and the Horseman. The horse could not so readily attack her there, where there was the chance of hitting the Horseman as well, and it moved instead towards Abbie – but it was too late. With a very self-satisfied looking smile, Irving had just finished off the last of the enchanted demons. Abbie lowered the sword, drew a brief breath, and then hurried to join her sister.
"You seem to be outnumbered, Abraham," observed Crane. He was still a little winded, and decidedly battered into the bargain, but he smiled as he climbed back to his feet. There would be bruises all over him the next morning, he was sure, but at least now he knew that there would be a next morning. Abraham turned slightly, his headless shoulders facing first towards Jenny, and then, beyond her, to Abbie and Irving. All three were ready for battle. Together they were a force to be reckoned with. Slowly, fists clenching and unclenching in an evident rage, the Horseman backed off. With one mighty heave, he swung himself up onto the horse's back – and then in an instant the pair were gone. Crane bashed dust and grass from his long coat, and heaved a weary sigh.
"Ladies. Captain. I am in your debt."
"It was good teamwork all round," said Irving, and blew out a whistle. "And some damned fine shooting, Mills. You ever feel like a change in career, you let me know."
"I think one cop in the family is plenty, thank you." All the same, Jenny smiled, firstly at Irving and then over at her sister. "You okay?" she asked, and Abbie nodded. She was fine. They all were, and that was what counted. Sometimes, when she was fighting for the future of the world, it was easy to forget what was at stake. Fighting to ensure that Crane and Irving, and above all Jenny, survived another night - that was so often what seemed really important. She handed the sword back to Crane.
"Here. You dropped something."
"Thank you. A most timely intervention, Miss Mills, Miss Jenny. Most timely indeed."
"It's all down to Lief Eriksson." Jenny watched as the runes on the sword flashed again, more muted now, their work done. "And all this time I thought he was just that guy on The High Chaparral." Irving laughed. Crane merely looked perplexed.
"Anyway," he said. "One more weapon to add to our arsenal. It's a shame that it doesn't have more widely ranging powers, but should we ever be faced by a plague of such creatures again, we shall have a distinct advantage. I suspect that Moloch will be more inventive another time, but we shall see."
"Yeah." Irving took the sword away, making a few practice thrusts with it, the mood distinctly lighter now that the immediate danger had passed. "I'm waiting with baited breath. Nothing says welcome to the weekend quite like yet another invasion of rabid hell beasts."
"Put that away before you kill somebody," said Jenny with a laugh. "Come on. Coffee and doughnuts. That's the cop thing, right?"
"Not for me. I need to finish reading up on those things." Abbie flashed her a warm smile. "But thanks."
"Yes, I should also be doing some research," said Crane. "There are one or two books that I know of in our collection, lieutenant. Between us we should be up to date within a few hours."
"Sounds like a plan." Retrieving the sword from Irving and Jenny, who looked as though they were planning on taking with them to search for doughnuts, Abbie handed it back once again to Crane. "Goodnight, captain, Jenny. See you tomorrow?"
"Your place. Breakfast," agreed Jenny, then with a wave she and Irving departed. Crane shouldered the sword.
"After you, lieutenant," he said, and offered her a polite bow. She smiled. That everything could be so normal again so soon after all that had just happened should perhaps have frightened her – was she really becoming so accustomed to this madness of a life? – but she pushed the thought aside. She would not give Moloch the satisfaction of dwelling upon him during the few quiet times that she had left. Now was a time for talking, for quiet research and companionship. Such little things were more important now than ever, and she would enjoy them as much as she could.