Harrowing of Hell – Part Five

Derek awoke just before eleven. Elise was still, to all intents and purposes, unconscious; she didn’t even stir when he untangled himself from her embrace and left her alone in the bed. He went down to the kitchen and begged a late breakfast from Dominick, remembering to tell the man that they were expecting six or seven guests. The butler didn’t even blink when Derek admitted that he didn’t know who they were, or how many were men or women or couples who’d want to share a room, or when they’d be arriving, or how long they’d be staying.

Derek met Nick on the way up to the library.

“Hey, boss, you look miles better this morning!” the ex-SEAL said. “I’m happy to report that there were no further disturbances last night. Perhaps Arkadi’s gone to ground?”

“I’m sure he won’t give up that easily. Have we heard anything more from the police?”

“I had Alex give them a call an hour ago.” Nick grinned. “She spoke to one of their nice detectives – fed him a line all about her suspicions that a certain Victor Arkadi might be involved in your disappearance, given your long history as rivals in the antiquities business and the Luna Foundation’s habit of frequently out-bidding him at auctions. She also expressed her fears that Arkadi might also be a threat to Kat and Rachel. She was so convincing that the detective sent a car straight round to keep an eye on the Corrigan household. I must admit I was impressed by Alex’s performance. I had no idea she was such an accomplished liar!”

“Are Rachel and Kat okay?”

“They’re fine.”

They swept through the hologram into the Control room. Alex was in her usual seat, ensconced in front of her terminal. Kristen was in the corner, pouring coffee. Derek paused for a moment, glad to be back in his own domain. This was his centre, his heart, and now he’d returned to it, he felt in command again. The members of his House had all stopped what they were doing and were watching him, waiting for him to speak.

“Sit down,” he said. “I’d better bring you up to speed on what’s happened.”

He didn’t tell them everything, of course. Some parts of it were too incredible to share – his visit to Hell and Kat’s part in it, his encounters with Lucifer and Titania, and what he’d learnt of Elise’s true nature. He kept his account of events in England sketchy, made a brief reference to his visit to Jacob and request for help from the witches, and went into much greater detail concerning the kidnapping and Arkadi’s desire to obtain the sepulchres.

“Wait a minute,” Nick said, when he’d finished. “You’ve invited a coven of witches over to the island to help us open those damn boxes?”

“Not a whole coven, just enough to make up the numbers. We’ll be taking part in the ritual.”

“What, dancing around naked in the moonlight with a load of strangers?” Nick smirked. “I could go for that!”

“I don’t think that nudity is compulsory.” Derek nearly smiled. “We need the witches to form a protective circle whilst we cope with the sepulchres.”

“Are we really going to open up that portal… again?” Alex asked.

“There’s no other way to free William’s soul.”

“Who’s decided that? That DuBois woman?” Kristen scowled. “Are we absolutely sure that she isn’t a demon sent by the Darkside?”

Derek sighed. “She isn’t a demon…”

“You aren’t qualified to make that judgment!” The blonde girl declared. “You’re under her spell, as besotted with this creature as you were with the Lamia! She holds your mind in her fist – you see only what she wants you to see, think only what she wants you to think..!”

She’d stepped over the line; the look of horror on Alex’s face and the one of disbelief on Nick’s should have told her that. No-one took that tone with their precept, especially when that precept was Derek Rayne.

“Kristen, that’s enough!” He raised his voice, just up a notch, but there was enough ice in it to sink an ocean liner. “Elise isn’t evil…”

“Like you’d know! She has you blindfolded, like that poor Fool in the Tarot deck, and you’re laughing and smiling as she leads you over the cliff..!”

Derek wore a frown like a thunderhead. “Kristen, are you too stupid to know when to shut up?”

“I know you don’t want to hear this.” Her colour was high, twin spots of crimson in her cheeks. “You think she’s little Miss Perfect, don’t you? You refuse to see the malice behind her mask, the seething hatred in her secret heart. She’ll kill you, Derek… she’ll kill all of us..!”

Behind Derek someone applauded, a slow hand-clap. He turned to see who, and for an instant, saw a stranger; a figure in stolen clothes, a lacy maroon sweater and a long black skirt that he recognised as refugees from Alex’s wardrobe. Still he didn’t know her, then the light sparked fire in her hair and her eyes glittered green with contempt for Kristen’s outburst. Elise.

“Quite the drama queen, isn’t she?” The silversmith stopped clapping.

“How did you get in here?” Derek asked.

Elise shrugged. “I walked through the wall that wasn’t there.”

Nick stepped forwards, responding to the threat. “The hologram shouldn’t have let you in! With one of us, yes, but not alone… Without an authorised retinal scan, the defence field should have triggered!”

“I told you – she is a demon!” Kristen hissed, backing away.

“Be quiet!” Derek snapped. “How did you fool our security systems, Elise?”

“Uh, I don’t want to worry anyone here, but she didn’t…” Alex didn’t look up from her screen. “Fool our security, I mean. The system has her logged as an authorised user, positive ret-scan, all hunky-dory… except that it won’t give me a name. All that comes up is an ‘anonymous – files sealed’ flag.”

Derek swung back to face Elise. “Can you explain this?”

“I’m working for the Legacy. Perhaps London put me on the system?”

“You’ll have to do better than that,” Nick said, shaking his head. “Each House has stand-alone security. Nobody can mess with it, not even London – anything else would be suicide if a House went bad.”

“Come up with a slicker lie!” Kristen challenged.

Elise grinned suddenly. “I can’t, I’m all out of lies! You’re too smart for me, all of you, and in particular, Miss Adams. I confess — I am a demon, an incubus, a vampire, a night-hag, a dragon… whatever you want me to be. Now we’ve got that over with, any chance of some of that coffee?”

Derek’s anger melted as he admired her skill at dancing rings around the truth without actually telling it. “Another little mystery out of your sordid past, chérie? I’ll trade you a café au lait for the solution.”

She gave a slight shake of her head. “Sorry. No deal.”

“Who sealed the file?” Derek asked. “Alex, can you get me that data?”

“Hold on…” Her fingers flew over the keyboard, then froze as the words came up on the screen. “Sloan did, eighteen years ago..!”

“He let you die..?” Derek recalled what she’d said at Bedlam, then ran with the idea. “He deleted as many files as he could and sealed the rest… and your Elise DuBois persona was born out of the ashes of whatever alias you used before?”

She didn’t answer. Was that a hint of fear in her peridot eyes?

“Tell me, chérie…” He paused, wondering if he really ought to be enjoying making her squirm as much as he was. “How long have you been a member of the Legacy?”

“C’est ridicule!” she said fiercely. “I’m only working for your people. I’m not a part of this organisation!”

Another lie. No, he reflected, that wasn’t fair – as far as she was concerned it wasn’t a lie, just a half-truth or fabrication or whatever twist of internal logic was required to stop it pricking at her conscience. “Sorry, Elise, but this rapport between us runs both ways. I can sense that you’re distorting the truth, so don’t bother. How long have you been with us?”

“That depends,” she said carefully. “How old you think the Legacy really is?”

“Oh, good — we’re going to play the riddle game!” Kristen exclaimed.

Derek ignored her. “We have documents going back for around five centuries, but I’ve heard the theory that we existed before that, perhaps as an offshoot from the Knights Templar in the thirteenth century. So, when did you join?”

“Shortly after you did, a very long time ago!” Her streak of mischief reared its head. “The only difference between us is that I’ve been trying to escape the Legacy’s clutches ever since.”

“She isn’t on the database under her current name,” Alex said, with a sigh.

“Which means precisely nothing, as computer records can be broken into and altered.”

Nick’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t think that Mam’selle DuBois has the skills to do that – no insult intended.”

“None taken, but you’re right. Computers leave me cold. I can’t hack and crack them.” Elise smiled. “But I know a man who can!”

“Is that the colour of truth on your palette today?” Derek asked. “You flaunt our security due to a simple computer trick – such a nice, believable theory, so easy to swallow!”

“Do you have an alternative theory, mon cher?”

“Perhaps.” He wanted to be wrong, wanted a clear-cut denial from her. “Were you ever a member of this House?”

Elise was suddenly still and it seemed to Derek that the world had fallen away from them, that they were the only two souls in the universe. The Control Room was swallowed by darkness; the only illumination came from the pale, cold light of their auras, the fire on Elise’s hair and the twin, green stars of her eyes. In the far distance, he heard voices; Alex stating the mundane and obvious fact that the silversmith was too young to have done half the things she claimed for her life, and that this new notion was absurd, and Kristen repeating her tired opinion that the woman was hell-spawn. The moment passed and he dropped back into real time.

“No, never,” Elise said, utterly serious. “But I’ve no proof of that. I might wear any face and use any name. How could you ever know that I’m telling the truth?”

She was one hundred percent right — he’d never be certain. Derek sighed and decided to let the matter drop. “Alex, disable her clearance. I’m sorry, I can’t have you wandering about wherever you want.”

“I understand,” she agreed meekly. “After all, this is your kingdom…”

“You can’t let her off the hook as easily as that!” Kristen exclaimed. “Throw her out of the house, kick her off the island…!”

“Were you listening to anything I said?” Derek demanded, losing patience with the blonde girl. “We need Elise to rescue Sloan…”

“It’s you who needs the little whore, to warm your bed…!” Kristen yelped as Nick grabbed her wrist and twisted her arm up behind her back. “Hey, you’re hurting me!”

“Shut up!” Nick growled. “You don’t talk to Derek like that. You don’t have the right!”

“Get her out of here.” Derek ordered. “And, Kristen, I don’t want to see your face again until you’ve made a full apology, and if that’s too hard for you, you can leave the damn island!”

Nick hustled her out before she could say anything else, leaving the three of them, an uneasy triangle, in the Control Room.

“Elise, I’m sorry,” Derek began. “She’s a wilful, headstrong girl and I’m sure she didn’t mean to…”

“Oh, she meant it!” Elise stated. “That’s an insult I’ve not suffered for a while – whore, harlot, strumpet.. ah, but I’ve been called worse things, much worse! I bring out Miss Adams’ spiteful side, I guess, and make her act without thinking through the consequences.”

“The whole world does that!” Alex muttered, sliding out of her seat. When Derek lifted his eyebrow at her, she grinned. “At least she keeps us entertained! Do you still want that coffee, Mam’selle DuBois? I’ll pour.”

“Merci,” the woman said. “Why don’t you call me Elise?”

Alex paused, rattling the cup against its saucer, not looking back over her shoulder. “Maybe for the same reason that you don’t call Kristen by her first name?”

Derek glanced between them, trying to gauge the flow of emotion. All he picked up on was Alex’s unease in the silversmith’s presence.

Elise sat down in one of the chairs, spinning about in it like a naughty child. She accepted the coffee with a smile of thanks, yet Alex felt that those intense apple-green eyes skipped across her secrets as if they were trinkets set out in a public display. She retreated to the safety of her own seat and Derek diplomatically placed himself between them.

“I’m surprised you’re prepared to allow witchcraft to be used on the island.” Alex confessed, to break the edgy silence. “Doesn’t the Legacy condemn it?”

“Officially, yes.” Derek agreed. “But we all know that our masters don’t always go by the book.”

“When it’s necessary or expedient to do so, the Legacy breaks the rules. If it didn’t, it would have ceased to exist centuries ago,” Elise said. “As for Ursula’s coven, they’re pretty harmless. They play at the Craft, messing about with nature worship, love-spells and sex magick.”

“If they’re amateurs, will they have the power to create a circle of protection?”

“Some of them have talent and the rest are a reservoir of raw psychic energy – we can make that work for us. Don’t forget that last time I had them raise a circle and that cur of a demon ripped in through our gate, the wards held firm until I made him come to heel and sit!”

“Did you say sex-magick?” Alex echoed doubtfully.

“Certainly. Why else would you have a mixed-sex coven?” Elise grinned at the younger woman’s distaste. “It’s not as much fun as it sounds, all yoga and synchronised breathing and controlling the flux of your chi. If you get adept at it, it can be a fast way to enlightenment, but most people get sidetracked by the carnal pleasures before they can reach higher consciousness.”

“What do you know about Ursula’s partner, this Jacob?” Derek asked, switching subjects before Alex got too embarrassed. Her dark skin was good camouflage for blushes, but he saw the blood rising in her cheeks.

“He’s a little odd, a misfit, out of place in this time. He should have been a hippy, a flower-child – in his head, that’s how he sees himself. He’s brilliant, but lazy…” Elise paused. “Just don’t let him near any of your computers. He has a way with thinking machines that borders on real magic.”

“Why is he willing to risk so much to help us?” Alex wondered.

“He owes me a debt.” There was a hint of regret in the silversmith’s voice. “I saved his life.”

“So he’s helping us out of gratitude?”

“Gratitude?” Elise snorted. “Au contraire! He wanted to die. I didn’t let him and I’m not sure he’ll ever forgive me for that!”

***

The witches arrived later that afternoon, Jacob and six others, in a convoy of two cars and a venerable VW bus that looked as if it needed major sorcery to keep it roadworthy. Alex’s mood brightened considerably when she saw that Jaimie was one of the company. As Dominick allocated rooms to the newcomers, organised their hand luggage and mountain of other baggage, and learned, with some trepidation, that his kitchen was being commandeered the next day for the preparation of a pre-ritual feast, Derek introduced Jacob to the rest of the house.

“I called Ursula this morning,” the warlock confessed. “She expressly forbade me to take part in this summoning. She was so angry that I think she might curse me when she finds out that I’ve disobeyed her!”

“But you’re still prepared to go through with it?” Derek asked.

“Bien sûr!” Jacob raised an eyebrow, nodding in Elise’s direction. “Everyone here is a volunteer. I poached Maia and Leigh from a rival coven to make up numbers. They all understand that this is no picnic and could turn nasty.”

“What’s in all the hampers?” Alex asked, trying to ignore the fact that Kristen had cornered Jaimie and was offering him a tour of the house. The blonde girl had left a written apology on Derek’s desk – it had taken her three hours to write it – and had received his tacit forgiveness, although he still wasn’t talking to her in more than monosyllables.

“Robes and ritual items, candles and incense… and the odd baby or two for sacrifice!” Jacob grinned at her look of horror, his teeth flashing white in the shadows of his beard. “Truthfully, I think there’s most of my kitchen in there – the girls went rather overboard catering for this feast. We haven’t had a decent party since Yule and I think they’ve researched some new recipes to try out.”

“Oh good, we get to be guinea pigs!” Nick observed.

“It’s less risky than the experiment we’re helping you with.” Jacob reminded, with only a pinch of resentment. “With luck and by the will of the Goddess, we’ll all come through intact.”

Derek left Kristen to deal with the witches as part of her penance, while he and the others retreated to the peace and quiet of the Control Room to brief Rachel about events.

“Use her mobile number,” Nick suggested. “The cops may have put a bug on the land-line, to trace any threatening calls.”

Derek switched the phone to speaker and dialed the number.

Kat answered. “Hi, Derek! Are you okay? Weren’t you kidnapped?”

“I’m fine, but you shouldn’t tell anyone that I called. It’s a secret, an important one – okay?”

“Sure,” Kat said brightly. “The police are watching our house and there’s a TV camera team outside. That’s why I’m at home. Mom kept me off school because of all the fuss. It’s really exciting.”

Derek curbed his impatience. “Can I speak to your mother?”

“She’s busy.” Kat paused. “Derek, are you planning something big? I only ask because I’ve been having weird dreams for the past few nights.”

“Please take the phone to your mother…”

“No,” the girl said stubbornly. “I won’t. I don’t want you to talk to her. My dreams have been full of terrible things – the five boxes, the demon who stole Connor’s face and lightning striking the top of the tower. I think you’re going to mess with all that bad stuff again and you want to ask my Mom to help you, and you shouldn’t!”

“Kat…”

“Derek,” Elise said quietly. “She’s right.”

“Damn right!” Nick echoed. “You can’t ask Rachel to take part in this ritual, not after what she suffered last time. The rape, that awful creature growing inside her and all the trauma of its birth… We had it easy, compared to what she went through!”

Derek glanced about the room, seeing agreement on all their faces. “It seems I’ve been out-voted. Sorry, Kat – just tell Rachel to keep safe and not believe everything she hears on the news.”

“When are you going to open the boxes?” Kat asked.

“Tomorrow night.”

“Take care, Derek. Did I hear Elise? Is she with you?”

“I’m here, Kitty-kat,” the silversmith replied.

“That’s all right then.” Kat declared. “Mom says we should stay put while all this kidnap fuss is going on, but we’ll come over to the island at the weekend, so I’ll see all of you then.”

Alex called out a goodbye, as did Nick. Derek broke the connection.

“Without Rachel, aren’t we one short of a full set?” Alex asked. “With the four of us, seven witches and Elise, that’s still only twelve. Don’t we need thirteen?”

“I’m half-convinced that Kristen will drop out.” Nick confessed. “She still thinks it’s a dumb idea.”

“Do you think Dominick would stand in?” Alex grinned at the notion.

“I don’t think this could be considered as part of his duties,” Derek said, suppressing his smile. “But we do need a full coven for the circle to be effective.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Elise reassured. “Something will turn up.”

“That’s the least of our worries,” Derek said. “Elise and I are meant to be missing. We can probably trust Jacob’s people to keep our secret, but if anyone else comes looking, we’ll have to hide.“

“I trust that your cellar is more comfortable than Victor’s!” The silversmith chuckled.

“There are plenty of places to vanish in this house, believe me!” Derek admitted. “As for Arkadi, he’s an unknown quantity – we have no idea what he might do. Leaving that aside, I’m more concerned about the story leaking out to the media. The last thing we need at the moment is an invasion of curious reporters.”

“Let’s see how bad the damage is.” Nick suggested.

Alex ran a brief search through the papers, but there was little in print and not much more on-line. Over the air, it was a different story. Someone at Elise’s building had blabbed to the press; speculation about the kidnapping was leaping across the TV news like wildfire. Derek surfed through the channels, sampling odd phrases. He paused on one where a red-haired reporter was voicing her theory that the Luna Foundation was enmeshed in weird stuff far too often than was proper for a sober, academic organisation.
“She could be a problem,” he said, frowning.

Elise glanced at the screen and grimaced. “You have no idea how much! Pay someone to shoot her now – one slug between the eyes, a quick and humane death – and save yourself a load of heartache!”

Derek wondered at the sharp note in her voice; it sounded like jealousy or spite. He guessed that this must be just another facet of her dark and often inexplicable humour. “Don’t you believe in the freedom of the press?”

“Not when they’re breathing down my neck in search of an exclusive!” Her green eyes were suddenly thoughtful. “But you’re right, we don’t need the added complication of a media circus on our doorstep. Give me an hour or two – I’ll see what I can do.”

***

It was an odd afternoon. The house was too full of bodies; Derek kept meeting small groups of witches exploring the rooms and grounds, and cautiously investigating the wonders of the library. They always greeted him with the utmost respect, but they seemed wary of him. He imagined that to them a Legacy precept must be a very strange animal, especially one who was a friend of the fey woman they knew only as Galadriel. Kristen behaved herself and kept out of his way. Elise was absent; although the gate denied seeing her leave, he couldn’t find her anywhere. He retired to his office and watched the evidence of her wild magic leaping like lightning through the TV news bulletins; a rash of sightings of the ‘kidnap’ victims in places as far apart as LA and Salt Lake City, with the police running around in desperate circles in their wake. By early evening, a confused spokeswoman appeared to make a statement that the two most promising sites were under surveillance, one on the coast and one in the mountains.

Elise reappeared soon after sunset, looking unruffled and innocent. She’d found time to stop off at her apartment – she was wearing her own clothes.

“You’ve led the hounds a fine dance, haven’t you?” he teased.

“Glamour and illusion, nothing more.” she countered. “Some minds are very open to suggestion. Do you blame me for exploiting that?”

“Do you have any ethics at all?”

“Mais, oui!” She stuck her tongue out at him. “I’m always kind to animals and small children, and I never ridicule mortals’ heart-felt beliefs, even if they are stupid to the point of total idiocy.”

“I had in mind the more traditional list, the top ten prohibitions against killing, adultery and the like?”

“The set of rules supposedly handed down from God?” She shook her head. “Your god, Derek, not mine. I don’t worship anything.”

“Is that usual for your race?”

“I’m not sure that we fit into your concept of the word ‘race’.” Her gaze turned inwards, to that dark, secret country he could never reach. “We have no home-world, no centre. We’re individuals, solitary and self-sufficient, lacking the kind of society and culture that you take for granted. We’re perpetual tourists, wandering from star to star, goggling at the wonders we find in each new system, sampling a little of the diversions that each world has to offer, but never really belonging or being a part of anything.”

“Isn’t that rather a lonely existence? Is that why you’re here, kicking around in  an inferior body on our insignificant little world – for the company?”

“And crawling on the planet’s face, some insect called the human race, lost in time and lost in space…?” Her face lit with a sudden grin, like summer lightning. “But, don’t worry, I don’t think of you as insects or animals, just as souls. And you’re right, chéri – I do need the company. Isolation is more to be feared than death, and eternity is too long to suffer alone.”

“The lone wolf yearning to join up with the pack?” He could sympathise with that feeling. “Have you ever been part of a family, or had a child of your own?”

“I haven’t contributed to the human gene-pool, although others of my kind have. At a guess, around forty percent of the psi-talent found in your species comes from alien DNA.” A certain wistfulness crept into her eyes, a sad memory. “I will have a daughter, though, a beautiful, innocent cherub. I’ll watch her grow up and blossom into a woman, I’ll watch her have a baby of her own, and then I’ll watch both of them die. Living forever has a very high price!”

Derek waited until her sorrow had dimmed, until most of the pain passed from her face. “This child – who’ll be its father?”

Elise laughed, but there was more sadness than mirth in the sound. “Don’t worry, mon cher – she won’t be a Rayne! She won’t be born for a century or two, ma petite fille, Jeanne. You have to find another woman to bear your brats, but don’t wait too long, or they’ll be calling you ‘Grandpère’ instead of ‘Pop’!”

***

Just before dinner, there was a call from the gate.

“They say we have a strange visitor,” Kristen said, having answered. “A man – he gave them a scribbled note saying that he was here to see you, Derek, but he won’t speak.”

“Ask them to bring him up to the house,” Derek said, with a slight smile. “Will you prepare another room, Dominick? I think we have another guest.”

Derek went to meet the visitor himself and the rest of his House drifted after, drawn by curiosity. One of the daytime security team escorted the stranger up to the door and as Derek had guessed, it was the silent man he’d met on the Tor, wearing the same camouflage jacket and carrying a rucksack hooked over one shoulder.

“Welcome.” Derek shook the man’s hand. “I never thought to be your host, but you’re welcome in my house. What brings you here?”

The silent man smiled. Up close his eyes were very blue, like forget-me-nots, twinkling with amusement. He put his rucksack down and extracted a slip of paper from one of the numerous pockets in his jacket. He gave it to Derek, a note on crumpled lavender parchment. As the thing touched Derek’s hand, his Sight kicked in – the hall was suddenly full of twilight, mist curled around his ankles and the scent of violets swirled about him. He blinked and reality righted itself.

Derek read the note. ‘Thought you might need a good man,’ it said. The signature was a regal flourish, illegible except for the initial T.

“Tania sent you?” Elise guessed. “Has she forgiven me?”

The silent man nodded at the first question and shrugged at the second, but he was still smiling.

“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” Alex asked.

Derek looked into the man’s face for a clue, but the sky-chip eyes gave him nothing. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name.”

“Nobody does,” Elise said. “Your arrival here is timely, my friend. Have you ever dabbled in witchcraft?”

The silent man grinned and raised his hand with the two outermost fingers pointing up and the two middle fingers curled down to touch the thumb, the sign of the horns, used down the centuries to ward off spells and the evil eye.

“Sure looks like an affirmative to me!” Nick observed.

***

Called on to cater for so many unexpected guests, Dominick had outdone himself and provided an amazing hot and cold buffet. He’d raided the cellars, selecting wine on the basis of quantity rather than excellence, and chilled all of the beer left over from Christmas; in fact, everything was running so smoothly it gave the impression that this event had been planned for weeks. All Derek’s misgivings about filling the house with strangers were unfounded. He’d expected a prickly and uncomfortable evening; what he got was an informal and most enjoyable party. It helped that all the witches knew each other, and that Alex and Kristen seemed to have struck up a firm friendship with Jaimie as a result of the PK project. Elise could talk to anyone and did, drifting from group to group, flitting from intellectual discussion to trivial chat like a butterfly. Jacob was an unknown quantity and Derek couldn’t quite get his measure. The man was technically-minded – Derek overheard a geek-to-geek conversation about computers between him and Alex – and yet he was well-versed in modern social history, literature and music. Even the silent man took part in the revels, speaking volumes with expressions and gestures, and even occasionally using scribbled notes to express his opinions.

“What’s his story?” Nick asked.

“Him?” Elise paused to sip at her wine. “He was in the British Army, did a stint in Northern Ireland. I’m not sure of all the details, but there was something about a patrol along a lonely road near the border and a landmine. Two of his comrades were killed and another was left crippled; our boy there walked away with minor injuries and never spoke again. He was invalided out as mentally unfit to serve and lived on the streets for a while. I’m not sure where Tania hooked up with him – probably at one of her protest camps.”

“I thought he was an Army man,” Nick said. “Perhaps we can swap tales of our past campaigns over a beer?”

“I doubt you’ll get him to talk about that.” Elise smiled sadly. “But try, by all means.”

Nick did, later, but the silent man just shook his head, so he moved the conversation on to classic cars in general and his Mustang in particular. His companion argued the case for motorbikes, and the debate was joined by two of the prettiest witches, who introduced themselves as Phoebe and Alethea. Nick discovered that most of their guests were using coven-names rather than their real identities.

‘They think of you as the enemy,’ the silent man scrawled on his notepad.

“You don’t trust the Legacy?” Nick asked.

“Just call us paranoid!” Phoebe said, grinning. “Persecution is the norm for us. I know it’s better nowadays, but it’s still safer and easier to admit that you’re gay rather than admit that you’re of the Wiccan persuasion.”

Nick glanced at the two girls, the first as dark as the second was fair, but both beautiful, and suffered a brief pang of disappointment. “Uh, are you gay?”

“No.” Phoebe almost kept a straight face, a feat that wasn’t helped by her friend folding over with a fit of giggles. “Are you?”

The silent man joined in the laughter – or at least he seemed to be laughing fit to bust, until tears trickled from his eyes, but no sound escaped from his throat. It took him several minutes to recover enough to write a note on his pad, which he passed to Phoebe. She giggled over it, then let Nick read it.
‘He’s all yours, sweetheart!’ it said. ‘We’ve just split up – we couldn’t talk.’

“Just my luck, a comedian!” Nick said, but as the laughter started again he was caught up in it, and he didn’t object when Phoebe sat closer to him on the sofa.

***

Alex didn’t notice that the party was breaking up, as people gradually drifted upstairs to their rooms, until Kristen pleaded tiredness and left. She looked around for someone else to talk to, but Nick wasn’t there and Jaimie had gone – in fact, there were few survivors. Jacob sat alone in one corner, while Maia and Leigh were bidding goodnight to their host.

“That about wraps it up.” Derek called to her, as the witches departed. “We’re going to call it a night. Can you turn the lights out when you’re done?”

“Sure.”

“Thanks.” Derek slipped his arm about Elise’s waist – such an easy, affectionate gesture that it made Alex’s heart sink. As the pair of them left the room, she was aware that Jacob was watching her, his lips moving slightly as he sang under his breath. She turned to him and caught a handful of words “..the one you catch is the one you kiss. Aren’t you sick of party games?”

“What?” She moved across to him and sat on the end of the sofa.

“Blind Step Away.” He shook his head. “Sometimes things remind me of songs – sorry, bad habit. I used to be a musician, a drummer in a band.”

“Now that’s a risky career!” She grinned. “Were you famous? I mean, would I have heard of the band?”

“That depends on your taste in music.”

“I quite like heavy metal,” she admitted.

Jacob laughed, brushing back his mane of dark hair. “We weren’t that. I suppose you’d have called us folk-rock, a kind of quirky contemporary take on Celtic music.”

“Do you still play?”

“No.” There was hurt in his voice at the memory. “The band broke up.”

Alex changed the subject. “Have you known the silversmith long?”

“Elise? Hell, yes – for twenty years or more.”

“Then you must have met her when she was a teenager.”

He peered sideways at her, an odd look in his eyes. “She was never a teenager, that one. She’s a paradox – as old as this poor world and yet ever-young.”

“Were you ever involved with her?” She couldn’t resist the question.

“Christ, no! I wouldn’t dare lay even one finger on that lady!” Jacob smiled crookedly. “We’re related, by marriage.“

“Sister-in-law?” Alex asked brightly.

Jacob paused for almost a full minute, then made up his mind. “I’m not usually as free with the truth, but you have a kind face and, in your line of work, you must be used to weirdness. Elise is my wife’s grandmother, or she will be, in around four centuries.”

Alex blinked. “What? How can that be? Explain.”

“When people ask me where I come from I usually say Iowa.” He shrugged. “That’s a lie. I just like the sound of it. The truth is that I was – will be? – born in 2523, October 5th. I’m a Libra.”

Alex laughed nervously. “Hey, come on! Do you really expect me to believe that you come from the future?”

“I don’t expect you to believe anything.” He sighed. “No-one ever does. It’s easier for them to write me off as mad, a loony drug-casualty out of his head, deluded, ga-ga – just another poor crazy.”

“You don’t seem insane.” Alex admitted, wondering if she’d drunk too much or he had, or both. “Tell me, if you really did come from the twenty-sixth century – not that I’m buying that for one minute – but if you did, how did you get here?”

“I died.” He half-smiled. “Well, not quite. I was seriously ill, incurable, and the medics could do squat about it, so I left hospital against their advice and crawled off somewhere peaceful to die, like some dumb wounded animal. Lisi found me and healed me, but I’d burned too many bridges to go back to my former life. She brought me back here, to San Fran in 1964, and I’ve lived here ever since.”

“That’s more than three decades ago! You don’t look that old…”

“That’s because I haven’t been born yet.” He laughed softly. “Mark it down as a story then, a tall tale told by an idiot. Easier on the sanity all round.”

Alex pursed her lips. “Do you have anything on you that came… comes from then? Did you bring anything back with you, because if you did, perhaps I could try to read it?”

“Psychometry, huh? Neat skill.” He drew back his sleeve to reveal a bracelet, a red-gold torc. “I have this. Do you dare touch it?”

“Is that a challenge?” She shook herself. “If it is, I’m up for it!”

Jacob removed the ornament and dropped it into her palm, a warm demi-circlet. Alex clenched her eyes shut, closing her fingers around the object. The visions flew at her like a meteor swarm, vivid fragments, bright instants of sensation. She yelped at the sudden onslaught of images, but they winked out just as abruptly, dumping her back in the present.

“What did you see?” Jacob asked gently.

“I’m not sure – it went by so fast!” Alex gasped for breath, trying to hold on to the impressions before they slid away. “There was a group playing in a stadium – you were there, playing a hand-held drum, and there was a female singer with silver hair dancing on the stage, naked, just wearing body paint in some complicated design. Next I saw some kind of fire-fight, a gun battle, way futuristic, like an SF film, with lasers or something like that, but it was real – men were bleeding and dying.” She put her hand up to her left shoulder, prompted by the phantom touch of a sudden, sharp pain. “You were hurt, but not by gunfire. Feels more like a blade-weapon or an arrow.”

Jacob whistled. “You’re good, Alex, very good! Anything else?”

“I was in a ballroom, with gilded mirrors and a chandelier, but it was in some kind of vessel, like an ocean liner, except that I was hanging in mid-air because there wasn’t any gravity and I’m damn sure we weren’t sailing on any kind of water.”

“It was a ship, a glorious golden craft called the Dream,” Jacob said. “She sailed through unreal space, on the oceans of emptiness between stars.”

Alex thrust the torc back at him, letting go of the rest of her visions. “Okay, so you are from our future – unless you’ve laid some kind of enchantment on me to muddle my Sight – and quite frankly, I prefer that option to the first one. Will we have the kind of technology that allows time-travel then? I mean, how many of you guys have come back here and are walking around in the here-and-now?”

“None that I know of. And, no, we don’t have that kind of tech-wizardry. We can travel to the stars but not through time. Lisi’s the only being I know who can do that.”

“How?”

“Do you think she tells me how her powers work?” Again that crooked smile. “Time runs differently for Lisi. The future and past are as real to her as the present. She lives in all of it at once.”

“Lisi? Why do you call her that?”

“I don’t think of her as Elise DuBois – that’s a fairly new alias of hers. To me she’s Lisieux Duvall.” His eyes twinkled. “She’s also dead in my time – well, all her relatives think she is. The last time I saw her alive, she was a small white dog.”

A wave of tiredness swept over Alex. She felt light-headed for a moment. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I want to listen to any more of this. It’s late and my head’s too full of fog to let me think straight. Would you think me rude if I left you and went to bed?”

“Alex, you could never be rude,” he said gallantly, standing up and dipping in a little bow. “But you’re right – it is late. I give you good night.”

“Shall I show you to your room?” she asked, remembering her duties as hostess.

“I’m sure I can find it.” Jacob assured her, as he left.

***

Alex stayed downstairs for a while, drifting from room to room. Her head buzzed with weariness, yet she knew that she wasn’t ready to sleep. She drank a glass of orange juice and stared out at the city from the kitchen. She did a circuit of the control room, switching off the monitors and watching the security screens for many minutes. When she went upstairs, she gave a wide berth to Derek’s bedroom, hunching her shoulders and scurrying past it. All was silent within.

As Alex passed by Kristen’s door she heard something – voices? – from the room beyond. She hovered, feeling guilty at her suspicions but curious all the same. There it was again, Kristen’s high-pitched giggle answered by a lower tone, a man. He said something else and although Alex didn’t catch the words, she recognised the voice.

Jaimie.

Damn it, Rachel had been right! Alex shook her head and hurried on. Not that she’d really nursed any ambitions in that direction; it had just been an idle notion, a half-hearted flirtation. If Jaimie had actually come on to her, she’d have run a mile…

Damn it, double damn! Why did every man she set her sights on have to ignore her as if she didn’t exist, and then take up with another woman?

She paused outside Nick’s room. She needed to talk to someone – perhaps he was still awake? Even before she touched the door she knew that it was locked, knew with her other-senses that he didn’t want to be disturbed. There were no betraying noises off, yet she recalled that he’d spent most of the evening in animated conversation with the pretty dark-haired witch, Phoebe. Maybe he’d got lucky, and Alex couldn’t blame him if he had. Nick hadn’t signed up to be a monk.

At a loss and not knowing where to turn, she let her feet make the decision. They led her to the guest wing and she counted off three doors before halting. It took her several minutes to work up the courage to knock.

No answer.

This door wasn’t locked. Alex slipped into the room and just stood there, afraid to call out and limit her option to retreat. The sound of splashing water issued from the tiny bathroom, then ceased. After a few moments, Jacob emerged, clad only in a towel loosely wrapped about his waist. Droplets of water glinted in his hair and beard, tiny, lost stars trapped in that unruly darkness.

“Uh, Alex?” He blinked at her in confusion. “I didn’t hear you come in. Must have had water in my ears, huh?”

“I could go…” That was a lie. She was unable to move, paralysed.

“Let me put something on,” he suggested, guessing that she was embarrassed by his semi-naked state. “Stay right there. I won’t be a moment.”

Alex wanted to flee, but her muscles disagreed. Jacob reappeared, safely folded into a deep green towelling robe.

“Take a seat,” he offered, waving at the only piece of soft furniture in the room, the bed. “And tell me what’s wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Alex said, and still she couldn’t move.

“Yeah, right. Gorgeous women always come to my room in the middle of the night, within hours of first meeting me, no doubt overcome by my sexual magnetism and obvious charms – it happens every day!” He smiled crookedly, mocking himself. As he spoke, he moved close to her, and Alex was aware of how tall he was, taller even than Derek. Jacob reached out and touched her shoulder, squeezing it gently and feeling the tension in her, the knotted muscles there and along her neck. “Ouch! We’re a little wound up, aren’t we? What’s upset you, to knock you so out of kilter?”

His touch unfroze her body. She stumbled over to the bed and sat down before her knees could give way. “Nothing – nothing, really…”

Jacob settled beside her, concern in his pale grey eyes. “You’ve had an emotional shock since we parted company downstairs less than fifteen minutes ago. What was it – an adverse premonition?”

She couldn’t fix on a plausible lie, so she gave him the truth. “I went by Kristen’s room and she’s with Jaimie…”

“Jaimie, huh?” He raised an eyebrow in an expression so similar to one of Derek’s that it made her go cold. “He’s been working with you on this telekinesis project, right? He’s a good looking guy. I suppose he caught your eye and you thought that you might take it further?”

“No,” she said quickly. He was too perceptive, this stranger, too close to the truth. “Of course not.”

“Jaimie’s not much of a catch.” Jacob smiled. “He has that old tom-cat mentality – he changes women as often as most men change their underwear. You’re better off out of that relationship.”

“I never wanted to be in it.” Alex lied.

He watched her for a moment, then decided not to pursue the subject. “It must be interesting to work with Dr Rayne.”

“Yes and no. Sometimes he’s just so damned exasperating that I could hit him!”

“Or hit on him, huh?”

“What?”

“You’re in love with the guy.” He shrugged. “Have to be, or else why would you be jealous of Lisi?”

Alex felt her cheeks flush. “Are you a mind-reader too?”

“Nope, not me, though I lived with one for several years. It’s scary being in a relationship where you can’t have any secrets.” He frowned briefly at the memory and she felt the ghostly touch of his sorrow. “Have you ever told the man how you feel?”

“What? Derek?” She shuddered. “No, I couldn’t!”

“You should.”

“No. No way!” Alex turned away from him, as tears prickled in her eyes. “Anyhow, it’s too late now. He has someone else.”

“Lisi?” Jacob’s eyes were suddenly as cold as ice, a snap-frost of misery – or was it fear? “She won’t stay with him long.”

“She’ll leave him?” She couldn’t keep all of the hope from her voice. “How could she?”

“After tomorrow night, she won’t have any choice.” His face was grim.

“Bad premonition?”

“No – I just know Lisi, that’s all.” He shook off his ill mood and smiled. “Now – and this is just a guess – I think you’re about to bail on me again?”

“Yes, I ought to go…”

“You shouldn’t be alone tonight. I’d advise some company to keep bad dreams at bay…” He saw her flinch and spread his hands in a gesture of innocence. “Hey, girl, I’m not stringing you a line! Sometimes we all need a little company, someone to be close, to hold us though the darkest parts of the night. That’s all I’m offering you, some human warmth, a hug – but nothing more.”

“And I can trust you to keep to that, can I?” She didn’t mean to sound quite that cynical.

“Absolutely.” He met her gaze with an open, honest stare, then unleashed his crooked grin. “We might have to go to your room though. This bed’s so narrow that I’m not sure I want to share it with myself!”

Alex was never sure why she agreed to his proposal; it just seemed inevitable that she would. The corridors were deserted, for which she was eternally grateful. She slipped into her bathroom to undress and don one of her more demure nightgowns. When she came out, Jacob was in the bed and his green robe was in a heap on the floor.

“Hey!” She protested. “Aren’t you…?”

“Sky-clad – that’s the word we witches use for skin.” He shrugged. “Sorry, but I don’t own any PJs. You’ll be safe enough – I guarantee it.”

Against her better judgment, Alex crept into the bed. Jacob pillowed her head on his shoulder and brushed her hair back from her face.

“Close your eyes,” he said, softly. “Pretend I’m Derek, if you like.”

“No, I don’t need that.” She finally smiled back at him. “Where did you learn to be so nice?”

“It was beaten into me at an early age!” He chuckled. “Now, turn out the light and let’s get some sleep.”

“You don’t turn into a monster in the dark, do you?”

“Not usually, except when it’s Friday the 13th, or a full moon on a Wednesday in June, or I’ve eaten beans for supper, none of which apply today.”

Alex switched off the lamp, then snuggled nearer to her bedfellow. Stranger he might be, and half-mad and naked into the bargain, but she felt comfortable next to him. How long had it been since she’d been this close to a man? She didn’t remember – and wasn’t that a tragedy?

“Jacob?” His eyes were shut, so she touched his cheek to gain his attention. “Do you think we can work this trick with the sepulchres and free Sloan’s lost soul from Hell?”

“If Lisi says it can be done, then we can do it.”

“You have an awful lot of confidence in her, don’t you?”

“Bien sûr,” he said, in a passable imitation of the silversmith. “And you, like the rest of the Legacy, still think she’s human, don’t you? But then, you haven’t seen her pull someone back from the edge of death, making mortal wounds whole again with a simple touch, or face down a demon until it’s grovelling at her feet, begging for mercy.”

Alex shivered at the thought. “What is she?”

“I’m not sure, exactly.” He sighed. “She’s no angel or devil, that’s for sure, but she might very well be an aspect of the Goddess. She’s wild magic, as sudden and lethal as lightning, and yet, in the next breath, she’s a child that plays with the universe. It’s all a game to her – joy and terror, life and death. If she likes you, she can be the sweetest creature you’re ever likely to meet, but if you earn her hate, well, that’s a different story, one with an unhappy ending. I’ve seen her kill a man with as little thought as you or I might give to stepping on an ant.”

“Do you think Derek knows what she is?”

“Yes, unless he’s a fool. With his psychic gifts, he should be able to see what lies behind her everyday mask.”

“He isn’t a fool!” Alex leapt to his defence.

“I’m not so sure of that.” Jacob teased. “To be blind to the fact that you adore him – that seems pretty foolish to me.”

“I don’t adore him!”

“Lie to the world, but don’t lie to yourself. When this is over, you ought to tell him how you feel.”

“Maybe.” Alex rested her head back on Jacob’s shoulder and they were silent for a while. She was tired but still too jumpy to sleep. “This woman you live with, the witch-queen of San Francisco. What’s she like?”

“Ursula?” He chuckled. “She doesn’t lay claim to that title! Our coven is new, formed last summer, and we’re only on the fringes of the established Wiccan community. They don’t like us very much. We’re too radical for their taste, too free and easy, too laid-back. As for Sula, she studied dance at college, she’s dotty about her cats and she works in software design. She’s away at a conference right now, over in Washington. She went with a colleague from her section who she’s been lusting over for months. The poor guy’s probably seduced and in her bed by now, and still wondering what hit him.”

Alex propped herself up on an elbow to get a clear look into his face. He didn’t look bitter, didn’t sound it either. “Doesn’t that bother you?”

“We have an open relationship.” Jacob admitted. “No promises, no ties. I don’t own her – why should I want to keep her in a cage? Life’s too complicated to impose senseless rules on everyone around you.”

“Oh, how sweet and sensitive!” There was more mockery in her tone than she’d intended. “Quite the New Man, aren’t we?”

She’d hurt him; a sulky look drifted into his grey eyes. “The male of the species doesn’t evolve much in the next few centuries, I’m sorry to say. We’re still selfish, recidivist bastards. Now, shall we get some sleep or are you going to talk through to dawn?”

Alex reached a decision, or maybe her rational mind just accepted the choice that her instincts had made when she brought this stranger to her bed. Perhaps it was mere childishness; if Nick, Kristen and even Derek could do this, then why not her? She sat up and pulled the nightgown up over her head, throwing it down on the floor.

Jacob didn’t move. In the almost-darkness of the room she was a creature of sepia shadow, a cluster of soft, coffee-coloured curves against the pale sheets. The only light was in her eyes; they were luminous. He smiled up at her. “Are you sure about this?”

“Truthfully? No.”

He untangled his long limbs from the folds of the blankets and knelt in front of her. When he kissed her the caress was hesitant and shy, and when she slid her arms around his neck, under the mane of his hair, she felt him shaking.

“Are you nervous?” She asked, in amazement. “Are you scared of me?”

“Not you, just this…” He drew back from her and she saw doubt reflected in his eyes, alongside the confusion and wonder that already lurked there. “First Jaimie, then Phoebe, and now us… There’s magic moving through this house tonight, strands of chance and wild coincidence. Ah, but the Goddess works in mysterious ways!”

“She certainly does!” Alex laughed, stopping the conversation with another kiss, and Jacob was wise enough to know that they’d moved beyond words.

***

Before Derek opened his eyes he knew that the far side of his bed was vacant. He reached across into that emptiness and found that the sheets were cold. Elise was gone – why couldn’t that woman ever stay where she was meant to be? Derek sighed and ventured out into the cool air, finding a robe to insulate himself from it. She wasn’t in the room, nor the bathroom. He pulled back the curtain to glance down into the dim, indistinct garden. It wasn’t quite dawn and mist trailed across the lawns.

He had no idea where to look for her, so he moved down through the house and his first port of call was the library. He found her there, half-hidden behind one of the spiral staircases. Just as she had been on the day he’d gone to her studio, she was wrapped in a quilt; in its muted tones of crimson and purple, she looked like a lost princess out of a storybook. She’d unfastened a window on the left side of the bay – ‘charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn’ – and was leaning out of it.
“What are you doing?”

She jumped at the sound of his voice, like a guilty child. “…nothing..!”

Derek was amused that he’d managed to creep up on her. “Shouldn’t you knot the sheets together before you climb out of the window?”

“I was just watching the sun come up.”

“Why?” He moved behind her, taking her into the circle of his arms. She felt cold and fragile, unlike herself. Looking over her shoulder, he saw that the sky was still grey, still waiting for the blessing of a fresh day.

She didn’t answer at once and, when she did, she gave him back a question. “Don’t you like to watch the sun rise?”

“Yes, I do, but it’s usually by mistake. I haven’t deliberately stayed awake until dawn for years.”

“Our  mother, the Sun,” she murmured very softly, as if the words were a prayer. “Sol – an insignificant yellow star on the rim of the galaxy. My star.”

He didn’t see the sun step over the horizon, as their view of it was blocked. Light seeped into the sky, transmuting its base metal into pale gold. Elise shivered and he felt power wake in her, as if the dawn had recharged her batteries.

“Shut the window,” Derek said. “Come back to bed.”

She pulled the casement to and wriggled around to face him, her smile as warm as any sunrise. After five kisses, he persuaded her to move, taking her back to his room. They tumbled together onto the bed and Derek took her with a gentle, slow-burning passion. There was an odd intensity to the act, a sense that it was sacred, full of meaning and significance.

“That felt like a parting gift.” Derek remarked, as they basked in the afterglow.

Elise gave a ghost of a shrug, lazy and utterly relaxed. “I’m not going anywhere, am I?”

“Not before tonight.” He couldn’t work up any real anxiety – fear was out of his reach. “And if we make it through to tomorrow, what then?”

“Whether we succeed or fail, the world will go on.” Elise reassured. “The earth will still dance around the sun, the sun will still burn and the whole galaxy will go about its business, unflustered and undisturbed. The tale goes on, until it ends – and that isn’t yet.”

Go on to Part Six

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