Harrowing of Hell – Part Six

They didn’t emerge for breakfast until almost noon, yet the whole house seemed sluggish and they had plenty of company in the kitchen. As they arrived, Nick was leaving with Phoebe, the pair of them arm in arm, caught up in an animated debate about forms of exercise; Nick was arguing for jogging, while she seemed to be against. At the table, Kristen sat close to Jaimie and giggled a lot. Derek and Elise weren’t the latest risers; they were lingering over coffee when Alex came in, with Jacob a suspicious thirty seconds behind her. Derek idly wondered what arcane goings-on had taken place during the night.

An air of lazy euphoria hung over the house all day, yet there were pockets of great activity. There were things still to arrange for the ritual and a site to be chosen to enact it. Preparations for the feast were afoot and although Dominick complained ceaselessly at the hijacking of his kitchen, he secretly enjoyed overseeing the work and sharing the witches’ recipes. Strange vats and cauldrons boiled on his stoves, meat was basted and fish steamed, eggs were beaten and cream whipped, and there was a running argument about which herbs to add to which dish, and how much, and whether the seasoning was right. Nick fell foul of the rule that anyone who quoted Macbeth would be ejected from the room; he’d barely mentioned newts’ eyes and frogs’ toes before Alethea seized him by the earlobe and showed him the door, and how to use it.

Time slid away in uneven pieces, fat minutes and thin hours, and Derek moved through it as if in a dream, unable to focus and give anything his full concentration. Elise shared his mood, spending most of the afternoon wandering through the gardens and drifting along the edge of the lake, like a restless spirit.

Derek was surprised when Dominick sounded the gong for dinner; he’d been in the library, scanning through his father’s journal in search of any clues he’d missed that would help them face the Fallen. He splashed some water on his face and found something appropriate to wear – Jacob had declared that the occasion was ‘joyful casual’ – and, although he hurried, he arrived late. They were waiting for him, of course, with the staff hovering to serve the soup and starters, and he muttered his apologies as he slid into the seat at the head of the table. Elise was on his left, a vision in a dress of pale-green lace, yet Alex was no less lovely in something crimson and floaty to his right. Kristen had taken a seat at the far end of the table, still wary of his wrath.

Once again, his expectations were shattered. He’d anticipated a sombre affair, with everyone daunted at the prospect of the forthcoming ritual, but the feast was happy and relaxed. The room was lit only by candlelight – some were scented with calming vanilla and soothing lavender. The food was all excellent, from an odd herb and citrus soup to the centrepiece tagine, a medley of roasted lamb and vegetables on a bed of cous-cous. Derek sampled a little of everything and was particularly taken with two of the offerings, a chicken dish flavoured with dates and almonds, and some cute filo parcels filled with brie and cranberries. Wine had been banned; they drank a fruit cup, a blood-purple tart liquid that tasted of spices and blackcurrants, with just a hint of claret. As the meal progressed, the laughter grew louder and more frequent.

“What did you put in this food, Jeb?” Elise demanded. “No narcotics or hallucinates, I trust?”

“Hey, it’s all organic, guaranteed free of pesticides, pollutants and arcane genetic meddling!” Jacob shrugged. “It contains a plethora of herbs and spices, all beneficial and magically potent. The only disinhibitor we added in any quantity was alcohol and that was mainly to boost the flavours.”

“Blame the atmosphere for our mirth, or the company,” Phoebe said, winking at Nick. “We aren’t drunk, just enchanted!”

The sweet course was served and Derek sat out, letting all the cream and meringue creations pass him by. Dominick and the staff left the desserts and cheeseboard on the table, brought in coffee and herb tea, and withdrew, most to catch the last ferry back to the city. Only the butler stayed on the island overnight, and today he had instructions to lock himself in his room and not come out, no matter what he saw or heard.

Jacob called a halt to the festivities at eleven, suggesting that the company prepare for the ritual. Maia was mistress of the wardrobe, and she issued the Legacy members with ceremonial dress, heavy robes of black brocade that fastened on the left shoulder with silver celtic-knot pins, but otherwise just overlapped at the front. When Nick’s eyes widened in horror, she laughed and showed him the hidden hooks. “Don’t worry – they aren’t as revealing as they look, except in high winds!”

“Uh, what exactly do we wear under them?” Nick asked, still anxious.

“Most men wear T-shirts and shorts, or jeans.” Maia was still grinning. “Us girls are braver – we strip down to our underwear, mostly!”

“We don’t ask you to go sky-clad. We won’t – it’s too cold outside!” Jacob added. “We have a very basic dress code; bare feet, loose hair, only simple ornaments that have magical significance or sentimental meaning to the wearer, and no weapons.”

That earned him a frown – Nick had intended to take his gun along to the party. He took the robe and stalked off in a sulk.

Derek and Elise retreated to his room to change. He unbuckled his watch, but kept the precept’s ring on his finger, and wore the robe over his clothes.

Elise’s robe was green, a clear, lucid shade a fraction darker than her eyes. She went naked under it, combing her hair loose and kicking off her shoes.

“Do you think it’s appropriate to go out like that?” he asked.

“Should I lose the robe?” She reached up to unfasten it. “Let them take it, for there’s more enterprise in walking naked.”

“Maybe not – you’d be too much of a distraction. You have no taboo against nudity, do you?”

“I have no shame. That’s part of the human mind-set, which I don’t have. Most of the time I conform – it’s easier that way – but I do have to consciously remember to do it.” She began to adorn herself with jewellery; earrings, a necklace and bracelets all of silver, set with opals and emeralds, and a simple moonstone ring. “Clothes are still a novelty to me, and I like dressing up!”

Derek had never seen her wear so many ornaments. “Hey, chérie, have you been filching jewels again?”

“I had my accomplice do the stealing!” She giggled. “Jacob brought them with him; they belong to Ursula. She wears them as coven priestess, when she calls down the Goddess. I crafted them for her though – all my own work!”

She raised her arms and struck a pose, her hair as bright as fire and the borrowed gems flashing on her breast and about her wrists. Derek held his breath, afraid that she was too lovely to be real, afraid that she might simply vanish and he’d discover that all of this had been a dream.

“It isn’t,” Elise said. “If you’re ready, you go downstairs first. I have to make an entrance to boost morale, or so Jacob says. He wants me to give the coven a brief pep-talk before we go out.”

“Okay.” Derek planted a swift kiss on her cheek as he passed.

The witches were gathered in the hall, awaiting Derek and his people. They looked different in costume, wilder and more dangerous. With his hair combed out into a wavy mane and his full beard, Jacob had the aspect of a real wizard. Alex had also fluffed her hair out and wore a necklace that Derek didn’t recognise, a pretty amber and silver piece. Nick and Kristen were the last to show, moving clumsily in their borrowed robes.

The company fell silent as Elise came down the stairs. Her flame-red hair stood out in vivid contrast to her robe of elven-green, and her pale skin shone with an inner radiance that rivalled the glitter of all the silver and gemstones she wore. She seemed ethereal and otherworldly, as if she’d shed her human persona along with her clothes. She halted on the fifth step and turned to face them.

“Jacob, as master of this coven, has asked me to say a few words.” By some magic or psychic trick, her voice carried to each of them as if she spoke to them individually, instead of addressing them as an audience. “Some of you know me as Elise, some as Galadriel, and tonight I’m acting as your high-priestess. I don’t know what made each of you answer Jacob’s call to this extraordinary meeting of your Circle – loyalty, perhaps, or friendship, or curiosity or even the thrill of playing with danger – whatever the reason, I’m glad that you’re here. The ritual we are about to perform is risky; how could it be safe when it involves calling up fallen angels and opening a gate into hell? Don’t let that depress you. All you need to stand up to evil is a true heart.”

“A little courage helps.” Nick added, when it became clear that she’d finished.

“And an unquenchable will,” Jacob said.

“And a large dose of stubborn bloody-mindedness!” Derek continued.

“How about nerves of steel?” Jaimie wondered. “And a strong stomach and cast-iron bladder?”

Jacob laughed. “Okay, people, that’s enough with the attributes. Let’s up and at ‘em!”

***

They left the house a little after eleven thirty. It was a clear night, with enough moonlight to see by, and even a sprinkling of stars. The witches had constructed a site for the ritual on one of the lawns close to the house; hours had been spent in argument over exactly where to put it. Maia had talked endlessly about feng shui and Phoebe had dowsed most of the gardens with a pendulum, tracking the dragon-paths and ley lines. Eventually Jacob had cut through all the obscurity, told his people not to be so bloody stupid and chosen the lawn at the south-west end of the terrace.

The wards had been laid out as three concentric circles of coloured sand, the innermost one picked out in black and just large enough to take the sepulchres, ringed closely about by a second in vivid rainbow-hues, surrounded by a much larger outer circle of ochre sand splashed with colour at the cardinal points. Matching candles were set in iron holders at each of the compass points, massive things with three wicks; red in the east, white in the south, grey in the west and black in the north. A portable altar had been set up in the northern part of the outer circle, set with bell, book and candle, and a fancy bronze brazier for incense. The outer wards were still incomplete, broken in the south-west to allow access into the circle.

“Don’t worry about the mess,” Jacob said. “The sand vacuums up a treat and we’ll scoop up any spilt wax. We’re masters of black-ops, us witches – in and out again without leaving a trace.”

“What do you think?” Jaimie asked.

“It looks fine.” Derek was impressed at how hard they’d worked, how much they’d thrown themselves into a cause not their own. “All we lack now are the druids’ boxes. I’ll fetch them.”

Derek had intended to move all the sepulchres himself, not wanting the witches to touch them, but Nick appeared at his elbow as he opened the vault, and the silent man was behind him.

“You don’t have to do this, either of you…”

“One volunteer is better than ten pressed men.” Nick grinned and the silent man winked. “You’ve got two.”

They brought the druids’ arks out one at a time and Derek placed them in the inner circle, mindful not to disturb the sand. Jacob checked the integrity of the wards and declared them sound. All that remained was to bring out the keys; Derek did and called the members of his house to him as he unlocked the case. He took the pierced iron key, the one that belonged to the sepulchre that imprisoned the demon that had taken his father.

“That’s mine,” Elise said, as Nick reached towards the jade key.

“Why?”

“Because it goes with my eyes.” The silversmith hung it around her neck.

Nick frowned. “Give it back to me. I have sentimental reasons for choosing that key.”

“Because Julia once wore it?” Her smile was all sympathy. “All the more reason for me to have it, with such unlucky associations.”

“We’re wasting time.” Derek nudged Nick. “Take another.”

The ex-SEAL did, picking the key to Azazel’s sepulchre. Alex selected one from the final pair and then Kristen gingerly claimed the last one.

“It’s almost the witching hour of the night,” Jacob reminded. “Are you ready? Are you resolved to go on with this?”

Elise glanced at Derek. He took a deep breath. “Let’s do it.”

Jacob whistled to the witches and led all of them into the circle. Derek followed, then Elise, and the others crept after. Jaimie and Phoebe were in charge of the sand; they poured it skilfully to close up the gap. Leigh and Maia moved deosil around the circumference, lighting all of the candles, and then kindled the incense in the brazier. Hot, sweet smoke curled slowly up towards the stars, smelling of cinnamon, honey and sandalwood.

“Move to the right around the circle, sunwise!” Jacob snapped, pointing at Kristen, who was straying. “We aren’t Satanists here, setting a curse!”

He pulled a sack from beneath the altar – with his black robe, long hair and beard, he looked to Derek like a dark Santa – and from it he produced a wide silver cup that brought to mind Tania’s fake grail, except that it was decorated in harmony with the opal and emerald theme. Jacob handed it to Elise and filled it with wine. Next out of the sack was a flat silver platter inscribed with a pentacle which Jacob presented to Alex.

“What do I do with this?” she asked.

“Just hold it upright, like this.” He adjusted her grip and aligned the object. “It’s a powerful weapon. Use it as a shield to ward off evil or as a mirror to turn magical attacks.”

The third object was a either a short staff or a long wand depending on your perspective, with spiral carvings at its blunt end. Derek knew that it would be made of rowan wood, the bane of demons and malevolent spirits. Jacob kept it, then pulled the final item from the bag, a dagger as long as his forearm, with an ebony hilt and a silver blade. He offered it to Derek.

At the sight of the weapon, chills crawled along his spine. “No.”

“You may not practise magic yourself, Dr Rayne, but you’re aware of the tools of our craft and their significance,” the warlock said. “She has the cup, which represents your element of water, so to keep the balance, you must hold the athame, the black knife, the symbol of her element, air. The yin and the yang, male and female – conjoined they bring blessing.”

Derek frowned. “Is that why you have the staff and Alex has the pentacle?”

“What, Dr Rayne, jealous?” Jacob grinned wickedly. “Take the athame and follow me around the circle, three times sunwards to set the charm.”

Derek reluctantly took the dagger. It didn’t bite or cause any disturbing visions. It was a finely-balanced weapon that sat in his left hand as if it had been made for him. The blade was etched with a delicate tracing of runes of some kind and the pommel was studded with green gems in the shape of a star.

Jacob turned to face his people, who had spread out around the circle. Kristen and Nick were looking lost; Derek guessed that those nearest to them would walk them through the ritual. When the warlock spoke his voice carried across the lawn, clear, commanding and so full of music that it made Alex shiver. “Many are called to this path, but few choose to walk beneath the stars. I have summoned you here. Are you prepared to do my bidding?”

There was a mixed chorus of shouts of ‘Yes!’ and ‘Aye!’, and the silent man nodded.

“So be it.” Jacob bowed his head. “I call you here to form the Circle of Protection, to watch and ward against the legions of evil and despair. I charge you to stand fast, and not to flee, whatever terrors are called forth under the sky. I ask of you courage and resolute will, that we may face this danger and overcome it. In the name of the Goddess, I ask this – are you all resolved to do my will?”

Again came the shouts of assent, louder and more confident this time. The silent man punched the air in a gesture of defiance.

“So mote it be.” Jacob turned to face the altar. He swung his staff in a loop above his head, touched its tip to the ground, then dipped it in the cup of water standing next to the brazier and waved it through the smoke. “You ancient elemental powers four-fold, with magic dire this rowan stem instil; so be it vessel for my holy will, and ‘gainst all fearful things this spell shall hold!”

Oh great, improvisation! Derek thought. Less boring than the traditional cant, just as long as it works.

It’ll work! He heard Elise chuckle inside his head.

Jacob set off around the circle, the tip of his staff three inches above the outer wards. Derek knew the theory; the warlock was visualising a flow of energy from the magical weapon to form a psychic barrier around the circle. He followed, using the knife to do the same. On their third circuit, Maia came with them, carrying the bell, and Alethea too, with a joss-stick lit from the incense; at each of the cardinal points they halted, the bell was struck three times and the sweet smoke wafted in the air as Jacob invoked the guardian spirits of the circle.

“I summon, stir and call you, twilight spirits of the mist-grey west. I beg your presence, you noon-day spirits of the white, burning south. I invite you, gentle spirits of the east, keepers of the rosy dawn, and I invoke you, midnight spirits of the dark, powerful north. Hedge this circle with your might and keep it safe!”

Maia set the bell back on the altar and Jacob turned his attention to the centre circles, drawing his wand around the rainbow. Derek followed dutifully.
“Three times round to craft the charm, all evil bound, to do no harm. From heaven’s vault to hell’s foul deep, watch and ward eternal keep!” He paused for an instant, shaking his head as if dizzy. “The circle’s cast. Now, taste of the wine and accept the protection of the Goddess.”

The witches filed around the circle, all sipping from the cup as Elise offered it to them. When they were done, she served Alex, Jacob and Derek last of all. He noticed that she didn’t drink, but emptied the rest of the wine out in a dark pool under the altar.

“That’s our bit done,” Jacob said, with his crooked smile. “The show’s all yours, Dr Rayne.”

Derek hesitated. There was no magic here, no flow of power. He felt nothing, just the light breeze of an ordinary night and the dusky silence of the gardens. The ritual had been empty, devoid of any significance, mere stagecraft.

“What do you want, the full lightshow?” Elise touched his arm. “Don’t fret, chéri – that’s still to come.”

Derek stepped up to the inner circle. “The keys. Put them in the locks and turn them, but be very careful not to touch the sand!”
Nick obeyed without hesitation. Kristen’s hands shook as she followed suit. Alex glanced at Derek in the vain hope he’d had a change of heart; when she saw he hadn’t, she sighed and turned the key. Elise slipped the jade key into its lock, then Derek, holding his breath, put the final key into place and twisted it round. They all stepped back hurriedly, retreating towards the altar.

Nothing happened.

“Merde!” Elise muttered. “Jacob, call the bastards out!”

The warlock shuffled his feet. “You sure that’s a good idea, Lisi?”

“Summon them.”

Jacob lifted the wand and smacked it down hard on the nearest sepulchre. “Wake, foul fiend! I conjure thee, in the name of the Triple Goddess, Maiden, Mother and Hag! I command thee – come forth!”

A thin blue mist began to spill out of the aperture in the lid of the sepulchre, rising in a languid spiral, then the same thing happened to the next box and the next, widdershins around the pentagon, until all five were pouring out cobalt fog. Derek went cold, and on the far side of the circle, one of the girls squealed.

“Stand fast!” Jacob warned. “Our will is strong – it will prevail.”

There were cries of alarm from all around the circle as the five sepulchres moved of their own volition, snapping into place to form the portal into Hell. White corpse-light blazed through it, rising in a pale corona and falling back again, as the freed Watchers assumed their grotesque skeletal shapes.

“No!” Jacob yelled, jabbing the air with his wand. “Stop! Come not in that form, I command thee! Come in a fairer shape, in the name of the Goddess!”

“You’re crazy!” Alex whispered. “They won’t listen..!”

“Not a cat’s chance in hell..!” Nick echoed.

The Fallen swirled between solidity and mist, then shaped themselves into dark cowled shadows. They lurked on the rim of the portal, which waxed and waned with an eldritch radiance. Nothing emerged from the infernal regions and Derek began to hope that Lucifer would keep his word.

One edged forwards, the leader of the five. It spoke in a low, ugly voice, full of unnatural subsonics. “You dare to command us? You dare to call us as if we were common imps? What you have summoned is your own death!”

The Watcher surged towards them, and as it tried to cross the inner circle, the wards sparked with golden fire, hurling the hideous creature back. Derek squinted through the moonlight; now he saw the mystical barriers they’d created as arcs of saffron luminescence, auras of power that the Fallen couldn’t cross.

“Maybe not,” Jacob said, watching the spectre right itself. “You can’t reach us. You’re trapped in that circle…”

“Only while your pathetic spell holds, warlock!”

“Which is all the time we need!” Derek declared. “So, Azazel – remember me?”

The figure turned to face him. “Rayne.” The echoing voice rang with contempt. “Why have you done this?”

“You know why,” Elise said.

All five of the Fallen swayed at the sound of her voice, muttering in wordless menace. Azazel growled. “You we know! Star-child, sun-spawn, interfering bitch! What is your part in this?”

“Don’t waste our time pretending ignorance!” Derek snapped. “You hold a soul in your keeping, the soul of my friend. Return him!”

“Is that all this is about, that trifle, that piece of detritus?”

“If you think that little of him, give him back!” Elise demanded.

“And if we do not, what then?” Azazel hung in the air, a malign shadow against the lambent flame of the portal. “Will you attempt to take him from us?”

Derek, Elise leaned close as if she whispered to him, yet her voice was only in his head. Use the athame to pierce the inner wards and call Sloan’s name. That will free him.

Are you sure?

Pray that I am!

Jacob somehow sensed their exchange and staged a distraction. He flailed the wand, struck a dramatic pose and claimed Azazel’s attention. “Don’t think that we won’t fight you, demon! We aren’t afraid of you!” He waved his free hand at Alex, bringing her into the act. “Use the pentacle, girl! Zap them with it!”

Alex moved the dish around in a threatening fashion, feeling like an idiot, and as the silver flashed in the moonlight, Derek dived forwards.

“Sloan!” he cried, carving a foot-long slash in the invisible wall.  A shower of molten gold sparks burst out of the tear and fizzed on his skin. “William Sloan! Come out!”

He saw nothing, felt nothing tangible. Elise let out a cry of delight and leapt into the air, one hand outstretched as if to touch an invisible, insubstantial fragment of something as it fled into the night. Azazel howled in fury and flung itself at the rift in the circle. For one terrible, elastic moment it seemed that the Watcher would break through the fragile boundary, and Derek recoiled, afraid that his drastic action had freed the evil again. The wards held – with a blaze of fire, the magic bounced the fallen angel back.

“Miserable human!” Azazel fumed. “We will rend your soul! We will shatter this feeble cage and devour all of you!”

“Be silent!” Elise said, acidly. “We’re done with you. Go back into your boxes.”

“Go back?” The loathsome figure that was Azazel appeared to swell, such was its rage. “When the armies of Hell issue from this portal, your stupid spell will be crushed! We will tear you to pieces, every one of you, but you, Rayne, you shall die first! She won’t be able to save you then…”

“Hell isn’t coming,” Derek cut in.

The four silent Watchers leaned closer together, joined in unspoken debate, a mass of brooding, virulent darkness.

Azazel hissed in shock. “You made a pact with Hell? You stooped to that, betrayed everything that you hold dear..?”

“How could he?” Elise exclaimed. “I dealt with the Morning-star. I take the credit and the blame.”

Two of the shadowy figures that had been huddled together behind Azazel now edged forward.

“Mortal,” one said, in a shivery voice. The pale glitter of eyes took form in the dark haze where its face should have been, fixing their icy glare on Derek. “Our brother knows your name and bears you enmity, yet we know you also. Were you of the company that harried Hell?”

“Yes, I was there.” Derek was bewildered by the question. “What of it?”

“You know our history. We have been trapped for centuries in these coffins, and for eons before that, in the deeps of the earth.” The voice trembled with pain, with immeasurable torment. “Have we not suffered enough?”

“What?” Elise laughed. “You would ask us to free you?”

“You made your descent into Hell on a mission of mercy.” The Watcher still directed his words to Derek. “Is there no redemption for us?”

“Our sin was so small, that we dared to feel a forbidden emotion,” the other shadow added. “Cast out of Heaven for love – where’s the justice in that?”

“Where would you go?” Elise asked. “Heaven won’t take you back.”

“We’ll pass beyond the compass of this world,” the first shadow said. “Many of your kind have taken that path, Star-born, have abandoned this reality for another. Have any returned?”

“There’s no way back.” Elise shrugged. “As for where that path leads, to oblivion or just to another place, I couldn’t say.”

“Then give us leave to go, and we won’t trouble this world again.”

Derek turned to Elise, in a wordless plea for advice, but she shook her head. “I can’t help you, mon cher. Their sin was against your race, not mine. It’s your choice.”

Azazel laughed, a sound that made the hair ripple on Derek’s scalp. “Then you are damned all over again, my brothers! This is a Legacy man, and his kind have no mercy or compassion. If he had the power, he would destroy all of us without a thought, but will he grant your freedom? I think not!”

Alex touched Derek’s shoulder. “You mustn’t trust them! One of them killed your father – and we don’t know which…”

“I remember!” Derek snapped.

Alex recoiled from the pain in his eyes. Why did she always upset him, when she only meant to help? Jacob quietly slipped his free hand around her waist; the contact steadied her.

“We did not kill Winston Rayne,” the second shadow said. “Yet we are not innocent – we have killed mortal men. All of the Eternal have the power to take life or bestow it; that is our nature and even our fall from grace couldn’t strip it from us.”

“Let us bargain with you.” The first shade whispered. “For every life we have taken, we will restore two when you free us from these sepulchres. At each instant of the day or night, tens or even hundreds of mortals hang in the balance between life and death; we can tip the scales so that they fall back into the living world.”

“An act of contrition from a repentant demon?” Jacob laughed at the irony of it.

“Can they do that?” Nick asked.

“Yes.” Elise frowned. “Whether they will or not is a different matter.”

Derek recalled his lover’s own words and threw them back at her. “They were angels once. Perhaps a little of that virtue still remains.”

“You can’t free them!” Alex protested. “What if every word they’ve spoken is a lie?”

“He won’t do it.” Azazel stated, with iron confidence. “The ways of the Legacy are too strong in him, and they do not sanction forgiveness. The only boon they would grant to beings such as us is destruction!”

Derek was aware that Elise was watching him closely, but covertly. There was a strange tension in her, a thread of anxiety that had nothing to do with Hell’s Gate or the Fallen. He was the focus of her fear, and he sensed that she had no inkling of which way he would jump. So, the boot’s on the other foot, and you don’t much care for the feeling of uncertainty, he thought, with a slight smile. Don’t fret, chérie, you’ve schooled this boy well – he won’t fail you.

“I won’t bargain with you,” he told the Fallen. “If you choose to save lives, that’s between you and your own consciences, if the Eternal have such things. I won’t be bribed or tempted by your offer. You can’t buy your freedom from me – it’s a gift freely given. Go – you have my leave to depart!”

The two shadows cried out in joy and amazement, a scrap of song so sweet, so holy that Time itself stopped to listen. There was a burst of white light, like a flashbulb popping, and two sudden, sharp sounds, like gunshots. Two of the sepulchres split into pieces. The bronze key glowed dull red and melted, dripping onto the wet earth like wax. The jade key fell into dust and blew away on the breeze. Derek shared Elise’s thoughts, clear and distinct, as if he was the mind-reader; C’est fini! Now all we have to do is shut the portal!

Azazel screamed in pure demonic fury. With his heightened senses, Derek immediately realised why – without all five sepulchres, the portal was useless. If they could shut it this time, it would remain sealed for all eternity.
A small whirlwind swept widdershins around the circle, killing all the candles and breaking the line of coloured sand. Derek felt the flux of energy as the wards collapsed – it hit him as a dull, forlorn thud in the solar plexus.

“No!” Jacob yelled, holding the rowan staff out like a spear. “You are held by our collective will, compelled to stay within the circle…!”

“Idiot mortal!” Azazel assumed his skeletal form. “For that, you can die first!”

Elise stepped between them. The whirlwind caught her hair, spreading it out around her like a fiery halo. She spoke five words very quietly, under her breath, then she was cloaked in fire, bright golden tongues of it. She raised her arms and it seemed to Derek that she had wings of flame. As the three Watchers surged forwards, she hurled the vicious, burning curtain into their path. Azazel hit it first, his triumphant laughter twisting into cries of pain as the fire enveloped him. His two brothers tried to turn back, but the flames wound about them, eating away at their bones. The Fallen fled, wrapped in a wicked blanket of fire. They had nowhere to retreat, nowhere to hide but their sepulchres and Elise used her elemental weapon to drive them back into confinement. Within seconds, they were trapped and the last remnants of the fire flickered over the grass.

“The keys!” Derek shouted, stumbling forwards.

Nick started to move towards the sepulchres, just as the keys turned in the locks, twisted by an invisible hand.

There was a moment of silence, then Kristen spoke. “Is it over?”

“Not yet,” Derek said. “The portal is still open.”

Elise turned to face him. Little sparks danced in her hair, yet her green eyes glowed brighter. “Now comes the hardest part, chéri. Only blood will shut Hell’s Gate – use mine. Kill me.”

“No..!” All of the fragments fell into place – the phrases he’d only partly understood, the angry reactions of her friends, her initial premonition… Derek cursed himself for being so blind. “You knew this would happen, right from the start! You saw it!”

“Oui, bien sûr…”

Jacob moved between them. “I’m the alien here, the one who doesn’t belong. If anyone has to die, it ought to be me.”

“No!” Alex squealed, taking a grip on the warlock’s arm and trying to drag him back. He resisted, digging his heels in.

“I didn’t ask for volunteers!” Elise snapped. “This isn’t open for debate. We don’t have time. The longer this portal remains open, the more certain it is that the demonic hordes will break through – and I can’t keep the lid on Hell for ever!”

“I won’t kill you!” Derek protested.

“What other option do we have?” Elise said. “Do it now.”

The ebony-hilted knife felt like lead in his hand, a dreadful weight dragging his arm down. “I can’t..!”

“You have to.” She raised her chin, tilting her head back. “Please, Derek…”

He slashed at her wildly, but his aim was good enough and the wickedly-sharp blade bit into her throat. She didn’t flinch as he struck her and there was no fear in her eyes, only an absolute, terrifying calm. She even smiled as she fell, twisting her body so that her blood gushed out over the sepulchres, a great wave of it, her life pouring away like a surge of molten gold.

“No!” He staggered back, the knife slipping through his numb fingers and tumbling end over end in the eternity before it hit the floor.

He was never quite sure what happened next. There was a sunburst of vivid fire and a furious gust of wind, a desert dust-devil as hot as a furnace, laced with sand and the scent of spices. The vortex of the portal spun back on itself, like the poor serpent swallowing its own tail, corkscrewing away into nothing. Then there was only silence and darkness, and Elise’s body sprawled across the two broken sepulchres.

Derek’s knees gave way, dumping him on the damp grass. He couldn’t see, part-blinded by the after-image of the fire-flash, and the thunder of his own pulse rang in his ears, deafening him. His hands were wet, covered in her blood. He wanted to die, wanted his heart to break in two here and now. Around him, the witches began to shake off their terror – he was dimly aware of movement and voices. After a time, he lifted his head, but his whole field of vision was filled with her body. No aura about her now, no pale sunlit halo. Her light was gone, her fragile loveliness ruined, like shattered crystal.

“Derek?” Nick stood beside him, leaning down to place a hand on his shoulder. “Derek, come away from there… Oh, bloody hell! What now?”

“Incoming.” Jacob growled, edging closer to Alex.

Derek surfaced to the sound of shouting and the wild strobe effect of powerful lights sweeping around the circle. Several of the witches screamed as a dozen men in dark clothing advanced across the lawn. A splash of brilliance caught the silhouette of one of the figures, glinting on the barrel of the gun he cradled in his arms. As Derek watched, he swung it round and sent a rapid burst of automatic fire over their heads. A voice cut through the chorus of expletives and shrieks of panic, an all-too familiar voice.

“Keep still! Be quiet!” Arkadi ordered. “If you do what I say, no-one will get hurt!”

Nick squeezed Derek’s shoulder. “Can you stand?”

“Yes.” Little would have persuaded him to struggle to his feet, but pride did the trick. It served nothing to appear weak before their enemy.

Arkadi’s men marched across the circle, scuffing the sand into a multi-coloured mess and kicking the candles out of their way. They herded the witches into two groups, splitting them up by sex. Three men came towards the inner circle and Derek knew their leader – Dermott.

“Boss!” the Hit-man yelled. “He’s here!”

Arkadi waited until the throng had been subdued to his satisfaction, with the witches huddled together in fearful silence, and then came over to them.

“What’s this, Rayne, dabbling in witchcraft?” Victor tut-tutted, shaking his head. “Scratching pentagrams in the dirt – that isn’t like you. Whatever were you trying to do?”

Derek said nothing. Beside him, Nick was as still as stone, all his attention focused on the man with the automatic weapon – there was only the one, since the rest of Arkadi’s thugs had handguns. Further to Derek’s left was Jacob, who’d prudently dropped the wand and now held Alex’s hand. Arkadi gestured to his help and two more of them ushered Kristen over, shadowed by the silent man, who shuffled along with deceptive meekness.

“So, what’s been going on here?” Arkadi repeated, moving along the line and studying each of them. As he reached the end, he caught sight of the sepulchres and Elise’s body. “Dear God! Dermott, bring a light in here!”

The Hit-man obeyed. Derek didn’t look behind him – that image was already graven on his heart without the aid of any cruel illumination. Arkadi swore at the grisly spectacle that confronted him, hard, ugly words in some Central European language. He came back to face the precept and there was fury in his dark eyes.

“You damnable man, you’ve ruined the merchandise! You’ve broken two of them!” Arkadi hit him across the cheek with considerable force. “You bastard!”

Derek stumbled and would have fallen, but friendly hands supported him – the silent man. Nick almost surged forward to avenge the blow, but Dermott levelled his gun at the ex-SEAL’s chest, discouraging any movement.

“Useless!” Arkadi continued. “This whole operation, all the investment – useless! The full set is five boxes; three are just bric-a-brac, worthless knick-knacks! How could you do it? How could you break them?”

“We did it just to annoy you!” Nick taunted, when Derek didn’t speak.

Anger flared briefly in Arkadi’s face, then transformed to cunning and spite. The man smiled wickedly. “She’s broken too, your pretty playmate! Throat cut and blood on your hands… Oh, don’t tell me, Rayne…! Did you kill her? Yes, I do believe you did! Oh, that has possibilities… definite possibilities…”

“What do you mean?” Derek asked.

“As far as the cops are concerned, Dr DuBois has been kidnapped. Thanks to you, I wasted most of yesterday convincing them that I was innocent of that crime,” Arkadi said bitterly. “Consider this scenario – we dump her body in the Bay and phone in an anonymous tip that foul play has taken place on your island. I doubt you could clean everything up before the cops arrive, so they’d find enough forensic evidence to prove the crime. Wouldn’t that tarnish the reputation of your precious Luna Foundation, the news that its chairman is guilty of kidnapping, murder, satanic rituals involving human sacrifice and probably rape as well? The Press would get a lot of mileage out of that. I dare say the scandal would run and run!”

“You’re overlooking the small matter of a dozen witnesses.” Nick reminded. “All of us would testify that Derek didn’t murder anyone!”

“Oh, silly me!” Victor covered his mouth with one hand. “She was half-naked and unarmed, and he had a knife – of course, it was self-defence! Or maybe it was suicide? Should we search for the note?”

Several of the thugs laughed, enjoying their master’s joke. Nick tensed for a spring, guessing that this would be his best chance, but Jacob was already moving towards the man with the machine gun. The warlock landed a kick on the man’s knee; bone cracked under the blow and the thug folded over. Jacob hit him in the midsection as he fell, and relieved him of the weapon. Nick was on Dermott before the hit-man could react, taking the man’s gun, then making sure he was unconscious and out of things. There was another blur of movement on Nick’s right; when it resolved, another of the help was on the ground and the silent man had armed himself.

“Tell your men to put their weapons down.” Derek ordered, as Nick jabbed his stolen gun into the back of Arkadi’s neck. “Or die.”

“He won’t hurt me!” Victor snarled, squirming in Nick’s grip. “You don’t have the guts for murder, Rayne…!”

Derek half-glanced over his left shoulder, with just the merest twitch of his eyes. “Don’t I?”

Arkadi swallowed hard. “Put the guns down! Back away from his people!”
They began to obey, moving carefully and slowly, but in any pack, there’s always a joker, and in this one, it was the youth that Derek knew as Flashlight-boy. He’d been standing behind Dermott. Now he lifted his gun and aimed it at Derek.

“Stalemate!” His laugh was high and nervous. “You kill my boss and I kill yours! I think it’s you who better put down your weapons!”

“Shit!” Jacob muttered, then raised his voice so that it carried clear across the lawn. “Lisi! You’d better do something now, or you’re going to have company!”

“Who’s he calling?” Arkadi asked.

“The dead,” Alex said grimly.

“Shut up!” Flashlight-boy’s knuckles were white around the gun. “Make your choice! Call your man off, or I will shoot you!”

Derek met Nick’s eyes and gave an imperceptible shake of his head. When he spoke it was to Arkadi’s man. “Put your gun down and surrender. It’s the only sensible thing to do…”

Flashlight-boy made a little wordless sound and fired.

Something soft buffeted Derek in the back of the legs, like a pillow hitting him behind the knees, and he went down, flat on his back. The bullet went over his head – as if Time had slowed to a crawl, he watched the track it carved through the darkness. Another object took wing, the pentacle-engraved dish, spinning like a frisbee. Flashlight-boy screamed and dropped his gun as it hit him on the forehead, drawing blood. Then the air was full of flying debris – the wand and cup, the bell, book and all of the candles – the inanimate caught up in a vengeful dance, swooping in to attack Arkadi’s men, as if each object had a life of its own. The sand spiralled up in an abrasive cloud, surrounding its victim like a swarm of bees – the man yelled as it ripped at his skin. The brazier emptied its red-hot embers over one unfortunate. The undrunk wine rose in a wave and dashed itself into one man’s eyes, and as he stumbled about, half-blinded, the cup struck him on the head.

The thugs broke and ran. Derek lifted himself up on one elbow to watch their undignified retreat. Two of the bravest paused to drag Dermott away, but they left everything else behind, all their weapons and their master. Nick stepped away from Arkadi as all of the objects whirled towards him, denied their other targets.

“Let him go!” Derek ordered, but his words were unnecessary. Victor screamed and fled, pursued by the wand and the pentacle. As soon as all of their attackers had left the area, all of the objects dropped to the ground.

There followed a tight, uneasy silence. Numbed by what they’d experienced, the witches were still, frozen by fear and shock.

“Sweet Goddess!” Jaimie said at last. “Now that’s what I call PK!”

Nick came back to Derek’s side and helped him to sit up. “Are you all right?”

“The bullet missed.” The precept’s voice was bleak. “I’m not wounded.”

“We’ll get you back to the house and then I’ll check on the guys at the gatehouse.” Nick frowned. “Maybe we ought to call the cops…”

“No.” Derek insisted, waving one hand at the chaos on the lawn. “How would we explain any of this?”

Jacob came over, with the silent man behind him. They’d collected all of the weapons, bundled together in the sack.

“I’m worried about your security guards,” the warlock admitted. “That madman probably just had them tied-up or drugged, but they might have been injured if they put up a fight. Do you want us to go look?”

“Yes, if you would.” Nick glanced up at the two men and blessed them with a brief savage grin. “Nice moves back there, by the way. Where’d you learn to fight so dirty, witch-boy?”

“I had lessons from a spook.” Jacob peered at Derek. “He doesn’t look so good. Maybe you ought to get him inside?”

Then Alex was there, supporting Derek on the other side. “It’s okay… Don’t worry about anything… We’ll get you cleaned up and into bed. Damn it, Nick, why is Rachel never here when we could use a doctor?”

At that point, everything around Derek began to blur together. He was aware of Nick taking charge and yelling orders at anyone coherent enough to take them, and he was also aware of being gently manhandled, and at times practically carried back into the house. After that, things became vague. Alex was there, and Dominick, helping him up to his bedroom and out of his clothes, and washing the dark, sticky stuff off his skin. He didn’t recall what it was or how it had got there – all he was sure of was that he didn’t want to remember. They steered him into bed, pulled the covers over him and left him alone.

***

Desolation.

When he awoke it was still dark. Rain lashed the house and the sky was the colour of bruised skin. He pulled the curtains, shutting out all traces of light and locked the door.

With his eyes open or squeezed shut all he could see was one frozen image – the knife in his left hand, covered in her blood.

“Yet each man kills the thing he loves.” His own voice surprised him, harsh and gravelly, as if a stranger quoted the lines. “The coward does it with a kiss, the brave man with a sword!”

He didn’t feel brave. He felt like a murderer.

Throughout the day, the world came to his door. First Dominick, with morning coffee and a wake-up call, then Alex with her anxious, insistent inquiries about his health and state of mind, and finally Nick with a great deal of beating on the door and threats of violence if he refused to open it. He ignored all of them and eventually they went away. They couldn’t get in – there was only one key and he had that. He wondered when they’d get round to setting Rachel on him.

She turned up late that afternoon. He listened to her voice, just the music of it and not the words, until it grew increasingly angry and shrill. Derek covered his ears until the noise went away.

Alex came back again later, trying to coax her way in with sweet words. Dominick made several trips, with lunch, tea and dinner; the food smelt good and the chink of china against cutlery was a friendly, homely sound, but he wasn’t hungry, and each time the butler had to take the tray away. Rachel returned with offers of professional help and pleaded with him to come out. When she got no reply, she got really furious and threatened, in a tight, icy voice, to have him committed.

“Go away,” he said. “It’s my madness. Leave me alone with it.”

She stamped her retreat, her heels clicking all along the corridor. It occurred to him that if Kat had come calling, he’d have let her in – he couldn’t have kept her at the threshold. He wondered if anyone had told the girl that Elise was dead.

Dead.

Night came, hand in hand with darkness. The house grew quiet, peaceful. He didn’t sleep, didn’t dare to, afraid that vengeful ghosts would stalk his dreams. He lay on his back in the centre of the empty bed, staring up at the ceiling.

Desolation.

***

The next day took shape much as the last, with rejected meals, and visitors pounding on his door and shouting at him. He let the disturbances flow over him, until one more persistent than the rest cut into his stupor.

“Derek!” It was Alex again, thumping on his door. “Derek, it’s London. The Ruling House are on the phone. They want to speak to you.”

“Go away.”

“Derek, they’ve been calling for hours! I can’t put them off any longer…” she paused, waiting in vain for a reply. “Please, Derek!”

“Tell them I’ll call back.”

“I did that.” There was irritation mixed with the concern in her voice. “Three times. Derek, you have to talk to them. It’s Sloan.”

Derek sat up and shook the wave of dizziness out of his head. “Tell him I’ll call back in five minutes… No, make that ten. I need to get dressed.”

That simple task was harder than it seemed. There were clothes scattered across the floor, but they were soiled with mud and bloodstains.

Blood – her blood.

Derek picked his way over to his closet and pulled garments from their hangers; the jacket he’d worn that first night at her apartment, the tie she’d scolded him for choosing, the things he’d taken to London… He consigned them all to the floor, almost overcome by the tide of memories. At the far end of the rail he found something safe to wear; an open-necked shirt in a drab shade of grey and a pair of 501s that were frayed around the hems and had been too tight, although his thirty-six hour fast had solved that problem. No socks or shoes – he couldn’t be bothered with such trivia, so he went barefoot. He unlocked the door and emerged warily.

Alex was alone. She glanced at his unusual attire and said nothing. Her lovely face was pale and burdened with anxiety, which only increased as she saw the state of him. His eyes were hollow, ringed around with shadow and a crop of uncharacteristic stubble was thick on his chin.  His misery trailed behind him like a storm cloud. She escorted him to his office and left him there, but he guessed that she waited just outside the door.

Derek sat for several minutes, composing himself, before he put the call through to London using the video-link. Sloan answered as soon as the connection was made; one look at his old friend’s expression was enough to tell Derek that the freed soul had made it safely home to its owner’s body.

“Christ, Derek, you look like something the cat dragged in!” William accused. “I’ve been calling for two days. What kept you?”

“It’s good to see that you’re back to normal,” Derek said, not even attempting a smile. “How do you feel?”

“Fine, great, wonderful – the flipside of the way you look.”

Derek ignored the implied question. “Your family must be glad to have you back, and the London House. Have you noticed any changes?”

“Patti’s over the moon and the girls are delighted. Imogen’s learnt to drive and Sophie’s grown six inches – they’re young women now, not children. As for my House, most of them are pleased to have the old war-horse back in harness, except for Wallace, who’s as sick as a parrot, spitting feathers at my return from the dead. Thought that the place was his – if we had a House in Coventry, I’d send him there and be rid of his incessant whining!” Some of the good humour slipped from Sloan’s face; there was regret and confusion beneath it. “I’ve mislaid almost a year, Derek! A year – a sizable piece of my life – gone!”

“What do you remember of your time in…” Derek shied away from the word. “The time you spent away?”

“I have no memory of being absent.” William frowned. “Nothing at all, not even the sense of something deeply buried, something painful that I don’t want to face right now. I recall that terrible night out on Angel Island, when I recognised Winston’s madness in your eyes, I recall stepping into the pentagon between the sepulchres – and then I was back here, sitting at the breakfast table with Patti. The transition was seamless. It’s as if my mind has been edited and all the horrific bits are on the cutting-room floor.”

“Better by far you forget…” Derek halted, as the words made him think of El… her.

“I might try hypnosis,” William said. “It would be an interesting exercise to see if the memories are there and if they can be reached.”

“That may not be wise.” Derek warned.

“Wise or not, it’s my mind. You don’t understand what it’s like. I’ve had a year taken away from me, stolen… Lost, beyond recovering!”

“Others paid a higher price to rescue you,” Derek said bleakly.

“Ah, that’s it, is it?” Sloan’s eyes narrowed. “Our ‘consultant’, the DuBois woman. Are you sure she’s dead?”

“Am I sure?” Derek laughed, but even to him it sounded more like a sob. “Yes, I’m sure! I… I mean, it was me…” He couldn’t form the words, couldn’t make his confession. “Yes, she’s dead.”

“I wouldn’t be so certain,” Sloan said. “She isn’t your average person and she’s died before…”

“Fake deaths perhaps, but this was real. And I know what she really was – an alien shape-shifter.”

“Oh, she fed you that old line, did she?” William was unimpressed. “She tried that one on me, but I never did see her alter shape. She claimed to be a telepath too, and to be able to move things with her mind… Wait a moment, did I forget the psychic healing and the immortality on the side?”

“Are you saying that she lied?” Derek asked coldly. “Or that she was mad?”

“I wish it was all a pack of lies or paranoid delusions or whatever.” Sloan sighed. “But I’m very much afraid that every damned thing I know about that woman – and I use the word loosely – is the gospel truth. Listen to me, Derek – there’s no need for you to mourn Elise DuBois. She’ll turn up again, with a fresh new face and a fancy new name; anyone who could get me out of Hell can certainly get herself back from the dead!”

Derek said nothing, lost in his vision of the knife and her blood.

“Derek, take some time out to get over this.” That sounded like an order. “I’m going to – I owe it to Patti and the girls. Be gentle with yourself, and don’t freeze your friends out. You know that they only mean well. Let them take care of you, heal your hurts…”

“They can’t help me with this.” Derek insisted. “It’s my pain, my sin…”

“Ah, Derek, always so selfish!” William grinned. “No easy way to salvation for you, eh? Well, it’s your chosen path…”

“If we’re done here?” Derek lifted his hand to end the call.

“Wait, there’s one more thing,” Sloan said quickly, warmth flowing back into his blue eyes. “You went out on a limb to get me back, you and that infuriating girl I used to think was my enemy – you embarked on a foolhardy enterprise far above and beyond simple friendship. I’m not sure I’d have risked as much to rescue you, but then, I’m not a Rayne. The words seem totally inadequate – thank you, all the same.”

“You’re welcome, William.” Derek almost smiled. “Just wait until I call in this favour!”

Sloan waved and broke the connection. Derek sat in front of the blank screen for a while. Eventually there was a knock at the door, which he ignored. After a respectable interval, Alex entered and occupied the chair on the other side of the desk.

“You should eat something,” she said. “Dominick says he’ll cook you anything you want.”

“No.” That was too harsh. “Not yet. I don’t feel like eating yet.”

Alex brightened a little, cheered by his response. “If you want to talk this through with someone, Rachel’s available…”

“Again, not yet.”

He could see that she didn’t understand. She was still too young to have been stricken with such devastating loss, such enervating sorrow. She frowned. “We were all there, Derek. We know how terrible it was, but it was the only thing you could have done. Nobody blames you for Elise’s death…”

“I do.” He scowled. “I blame myself. I should have known what she was planning, seen through her duplicity, and if I’d known, I could have prevented it.”

“And who would you have sacrificed in her place?” Alex demanded. “One of the witches, or Kristen, or me – or yourself?”

You can’t save everybody, Derek, Elise’s voice whispered from his memory, but she had. She’d saved all the people important to him and also to Jacob, buying their survival with her own life. Personne, she’d said, no-one important will die…

Derek shrugged and it seemed to Alex that something came back to his eyes, something of himself. A little of the madness left and the first hint of practicality returned. “What happened to her body? Is it still in the house?”

“The witches took it with them, back to the mainland.”

He found that almost amusing, Jacob smuggling a body across to the city in his battered VW bus, especially when, as far as the police were concerned, the body was that of a kidnap victim. If he’d been caught – but that hadn’t happened, or Alex would have told him. “Then I need a phone number — can you find it for me? It won’t be an easy search, as I don’t know the surname and all I have for you to go on is an address in Pacific Heights.”

“If you want to call Jacob, he gave me his number.” She grinned at his amazement. “Actually I have three numbers – the land-line, his mobile and the secret one to his retreat in the mountains – not to mention three e-mail addys and his ICQ number. Which do you want?”

Derek raised that eyebrow – oh God, she’d missed that! “So you did sleep with him?”

“I’m only releasing that data on a need-to-know basis,” she said sweetly.

“And I don’t fall into that category?” Derek pushed the phone over to her. “Use the number for the house, and don’t tell me that either.”

She pressed the keys, switching the thing to speaker-mode so she could hear the warlock’s voice. It rang for a while, then Jacob picked up. “If it’s you again, Terry, and you want to speak to Sula, you can’t – she’s out!”

“It’s Derek Rayne.”

Jacob’s whole tone and manner changed, returning to mild and civil. “Hi, Dr Rayne. How are you? What can I do you for?”

“The funeral,” Derek said, bleakly. “When is it?”

The warlock’s double-take was almost audible. “Whose funeral?”

His voice shook as he said her name. “Elise DuBois.”

This time the silence was so long that Derek thought the line had gone dead, then Jacob sighed. “She didn’t want a funeral – she had no use for religious beliefs. In strict accordance with her wishes, I had her body cremated and scattered the ashes into the ocean. We cleared her studio yesterday – the contents will be shipped to Europe. You’re too late. Everything’s done.”

“Why the rush?” Derek demanded. “Why the need to settle her affairs with such indecent speed?”

“It was what she wanted, no more, no less,” he sighed again. “There’s no need to upset yourself over this, Dr Rayne. She was Galadriel – remember all that ‘diminishing’ and ‘passing into the west’ stuff? After all, it isn’t as if she’s really dead…”

Derek hit the key and killed the call.

Alex glared at him. “You didn’t have to do that!”

“Should I have sat and listened to all his weird New-Age beliefs about life and death? What does he know, anyway?”

She considered arguing, then dismissed the idea. The silence flowed back, a wedge between them. Derek wondered if he should say something, but Alex beat him to it. “I almost forgot – you’ve got a weird e-mail. I sent it to this terminal.”

He called up the program and scanned through the inbox. London had been mailing on an average of once an hour, but there was one black sheep in the flock from a mysterious source, Queen@Elfland.co.uk. When he put it on the screen and scrolled down to the signature there was only a single letter, T.

“It’s a poem,” Alex said, moving around to read over his shoulder.

“No, it’s the lyrics to a song.” Derek skipped through the lines, frowning. He couldn’t bring the tune to mind but odd phases seemed familiar. “For I have loved not as I should a creature made of clay…”

“Trust you to go straight to the dismal bit!” Alex scolded. “How about this piece? – I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way, and I said ‘Let grief be a falling leaf at the dawning of the day’ – that’s sweet. Who’s it from? Do you know?”

“Titania.”

“Now, there’s a fancy name!” She wrinkled her nose. “Who is she and how does she know you?”

“I met her in England. She protests against projects that despoil the environment…”

Nick entered the office without knocking.

“You look terrible,” he said. “I’m glad you’ve come out of your room. I was working on taking the door down.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t abseil down from the roof and kick in the window.”

“Thought about it.” Nick confessed, claiming the chair.

“Dominick talked him out of it.” Alex added. “He said we’d never find a craftsman able to restore all that leaded glass.”

“I must give that man a raise.” Derek made a mental note.

“I suppose you’d like a report on what’s been going on around here?” Nick asked. “The lawn’s clean; the witches went over the grass practically blade by blade. Even Frances couldn’t find anything out there now. Arkadi’s thugs played rough with our guys on the gate – multiple bruises and a couple of cracked ribs – they’ll be on sick-leave for a week, maybe two.”

“What about Victor? Did he go to the cops?”

“My sources say that he’s fled the city. Took a plane out to Brazil yesterday.” Nick’s grin had a nasty edge to it. “Running like the coward he he always was. Whatever magic or manifestation chased him off the island, it scared him good!”

Alex shook her head; that was a dangerous topic.

“We do have one urgent problem.” Nick continued. “The media have worked themselves up into a feeding-frenzy over your kidnap case, and they’re leaning on the cops hard to solve it. You can’t stay hidden for much longer. We need to get you back into circulation fast and that’s going to take one hell of a good cover story!”

Derek paused, frowning as he ran through a selection of plausible scenarios. “I think we should keep it simple – sneak me across the the mainland and dump me somewhere so I can be found. I can tell them that I was blindfolded and never had the chance to see my captors.”

“You certainly look as if you’ve been shut in a basement for four days.” Nick observed.

“The cops will assume that the Luna Foundation paid your ransom and that’s why the kidnappers released you.” Alex added. “And if we deny it, they’ll be certain. It should work like a dream.”

Nick steeled himself and tested the water. “What will you tell them about Elise?”

Pain coiled in Derek’s eyes at the sound of her name and he clenched his teeth, biting down on his grief. “I’ll say that we were separated, that I don’t know what happened to her, that I’m afraid for her… that I think she might be dead…”

Alex wanted to hug him, appalled by the broken note of sorrow in his voice. “That ought to convince them. It convinces me, and I know it’s a fake!”

“Where do you want to be dumped?” Nick asked.

For a moment he had no answer, then in came to him in a surge of rightness, a circle of completion – the place where this journey had started. “Corona Heights.”

***

Dominick wouldn’t let him leave on an empty stomach; he produced exquisite fluffy scrambled eggs dotted with flakes of smoked salmon and perfect golden toast. Derek managed about half of it in the time it took Alex to do some creative dirtying of the clothes he had been kidnapped in. Nick tucked him under a blanket in the back of the Explorer and delivered him unseen to the site of his return. After a quick drive-by, they decided that the Heights were too bare for their purposes – there was scarcely a bush to hide a body beneath. Nick turned along Haight and dropped his ‘kidnap victim’ on the north side of Beuna Vista Park. Derek slipped quickly away, losing himself in the shrubbery. This place was too close to Ursula and Jacob’s home for his liking; with a hefty slice of illogic, he was afraid that the witches might just stroll around the corner and ask him why he was there.

As agreed, Derek waited for a while, to give Nick time to get to Rachel’s – they’d picked that as his excuse for being over in the city, as it seemed a natural and very reasonable alibi. There was nobody about; Derek found a bench to watch the sunset paint the sky in shades of copper and gold. The spectacle filled him with melancholy – it looked too much like blood spilling over the city.

When it was growing dark, in the gathering twilight, he saw a figure walking up the slope leading two dogs out for their evening exercise. Derek chose a nearby bush and huddled under it, curling up on his side and closing his eyes. Within a few minutes he heard one of the dogs approaching and sniffing about in the undergrowth. He lay very still as the animal came up to him, glimpsing a mass of white, black and brown through slitted eyelids. A damp nose snuffled in his hair and warm, velvety ears brushed across his forehead. He groaned – the dog sprang back and let out a bay of alarm. The second dog, which was bigger and mostly black, raced to the rescue, waving its plumed tail and barking. Derek covered his face with one arm. He’d developed an irrational aversion to black dogs, although this one was evidently solid and not a spirit.

“Hey, Molly, what have you found?” The woman called out. “Damnit, Pup, leave it! Get your nose out of there!”

The dogs hung back, keeping up their constant barking until the woman reached them. She parted the bushes to see what they’d found so disturbing and Derek blinked up into her amazed face.

“Holy shit!” she said, recognising him from the picture on the news. “It’s you… that poor man who was kidnapped! Dr Rayne, isn’t it? Are you hurt?”

“I don’t think so…” Derek let her haul him to his feet, swaying with pretend feebleness. “Could you call for help?”

“Sure, no problem.” She guided him along to the nearest bench, and he leaned on her for effect. The dogs romped around their feet. She dug in a pocket, produced a cell-phone and made the call, then she sat down too. “The cops are on their way. We’ll stay with you until they get here.”

“Thanks.” Derek smiled his gratitude at her kindness. “Thanks very much.”

***

The detectives never doubted his story for a moment. They asked him only a bare minimum of questions before finding a doctor to check him over for injuries. A few soil and dust samples were taken from his shoes and clothing, then he was served with coffee and doughnuts while he waited. Nick arrived within twenty minutes, with Rachel in tow, and they left via the rear of the building to avoid the press.

“Mission accomplished?” Nick asked, as they headed for the ferry.

“Without a hitch.” Derek’s voice was flat, empty. “I have to come back for further questioning, tomorrow or the next day, depending on when I feel up to it. I told them that I didn’t remember very much. Their medic said I must be in shock.”

“You are, but not for that reason,” Rachel said. “When you want to talk about Elise…”

“I don’t,” he snapped. “I don’t want her mentioned. I don’t want to hear her name. I don’t want to think about it!”

“You need to talk about what happened…”

“No!” His scowl slammed into place like a portcullis. “There’s nothing to say.”

***

Derek had Nick take him into the city the next morning – he’d wanted to go alone, but none of his House would accept that. He fed the cops his story of being blindfolded for much of the time and kept in a dark cellar; it was such a simple, logical lie that they took it for the truth. He insisted that the Luna Foundation hadn’t paid any ransom for him – that they didn’t believe. They told him that a demand for cash had been made to the Phoenix Project to secure Dr DuBois’ freedom, and had been refused, and they also admitted that they hadn’t found her yet. He looked suitably dejected at the bad news – precious little acting involved there. They made him look through books of mug-shots to see if he could spot any of the three men who had forced him into the van, but neither Dermott nor Flashlight-boy were there. After three fruitless hours, they let him go. Derek sneaked out the back door and found Nick waiting.

“Is that it?” the ex-SEAL asked.

“I told them what they wanted to hear.” Derek shrugged. “The truth would have been much more difficult.”

“So, we head for home?”

“Not yet.” Derek frowned, ill at ease and restless still. “I want to walk for a while, down by the shore. You know the place.”

Nick did; the precept often went there to mull over his thoughts and to think on the dead. On his last visit, Jessica had found him there. “Does it have to be there?”

“Don’t argue,” Derek said tightly. “Just drive.”

When they reached the shore, Derek paused before leaving the vehicle. “Don’t follow me, Nick. I just want to walk, on my own. Stay here, go for lunch – whatever you want. Meet me back here in an hour.”

Nick looked uncomfortable. “Derek, I’m not sure I should…”

“What did Rachel tell you, to tag along at my side for the day? Does she think I’m going to make some dumb suicide attempt?” He saw Nick’s guilty twitch and laughed. “Is that what you’re afraid of, that I’ll jump in the Bay and drown? Believe me, that water’s too damn cold. I had my fill of it the other night!”

Nick finally smiled. “Okay, just an hour. If you’re done sooner, call me on the cell-phone.”

Derek walked down by the water, watching the play of light on its surface. The sky was grey and broken, with odd bursts of sunshine, and at times there was drizzle on the breeze. He’d worked through a lot of grief in the past few days; he’d distilled it down until it lay in a dark pool, heavy and condensed, like mercury, in his heart. The guilt was less easy to deal with; it tormented him, night after night, robbing him of sleep and eating away at his soul. All the suffering achieved nothing. Elise was gone, dead, murdered by his own hand. He would carry that burden for the rest of his days, and no doubt pay for it after death. Derek closed his eyes and imagined his place in Hell, locked in stone or ice, his skin burning under the flow of acid tears. Perhaps after a few millennia of torture, some kind, brave soul would free him from the underworld.

He sighed and dismissed the nightmare. Life went on, even with such a huge piece of it torn away. He had to get himself back to normal, go on with his work in the Legacy.

There were few people down by the shore; the weather was too fickle to encourage idle visitors. Now he caught sight of someone ahead of him, a woman. He saw a tall, slim figure, dressed in dark clothing, a flowing skirt and a soft jacket in shades of indigo. The breeze caught her long hair and unfurled it behind her like a banner of flame.

Elise.

It couldn’t be her – his rational mind told him that, but his heart skipped a beat and he began to walk quickly towards her. She seemed so far ahead that he was suddenly afraid that he’d lose her. He broke into a run.

“Wait, wait!” He finally caught up with the figure, clutched at her shoulder and whirled her around.

In that moment he saw her clearly and knew he’d made an awful mistake. This woman was too short by several inches and too young – she seemed about nineteen. The hair he’d taken for auburn was blonde, as pale as primroses, and her eyes were grey-blue, not green. Her face, although similar to Elise’s, was that of a stranger. “Dear God, I’m sorry! I thought you were someone else!”

“And you were right.” She smiled gently. “I was. Hello, Derek.”

There it was – that casual, heart-stopping phrase. She spoke with Elise’s voice. Derek staggered and almost fell, but she caught him under the elbow and supported him with surprising ease.

“Perhaps we should sit down.” She steered him towards a convenient bench. Derek was pretty sure it hadn’t been there an instant before. “Are you all right?”

“But you were dead! I killed you!”

“Yes, yes, I know. I was there, remember?” She was still smiling. “I seem to be making a habit of dying for your damn Legacy. I’ll have to break it, it’s a bad one! Still, this time was less painful than the last…”

“But I killed you! The knife, your blood…”

“Closed the gateway. It was the only way. Somebody had to die, and I was the logical choice.”

“You knew right from the beginning!” He accused. From the moment that the truth had swept over him like a wave, he had burned in the horror of it. “That vision you had… you knew!”

“Yes, I knew.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you?” She laughed, a sudden billow of amusement. “Mon dieu, Derek – that would have been madness! You carry the burden of grief and guilt too heavily; look at you now, drowning in sorrow, in mourning for a woman that you barely knew…”

Derek felt dizzy, as if the world rippled around him. “I loved you…!”

Her smile softened, her eyes growing shiny, slick with unshed tears. “Mais non, mon cher. You think you did, maybe you’ve even convinced yourself… We had fun, shared some fine adventures, a lot of laughter and some delicious intimacy. It was delightful, but was it love? I think not.”

This still felt unreal to Derek. Half of his mind insisted that this lovely young woman was a total stranger, yet his instincts, emotions and intuition were certain that he spoke to Elise.

“I did almost tell you,” she continued. “Your damn intuition was working much too well, so I crafted a lie out of most of the whole truth. I couldn’t risk you knowing I was going to die. You would have found some way to stop me, even if it meant turning the knife on yourself – and I couldn’t allow that.”

“But you were dead – that was no trick, no illusion. How is it you’re here now?”

“Derek.” She touched his cheek. Warmth flowed from her fingertips, her magic healing touch. It swept through him and all of his grief and anguish blew away. “This world doesn’t believe in life beyond death. It trades in certainties, contracts and scientific proof; the afterlife is too intangible, too insubstantial to ever satisfy human logic. Even you don’t really believe in it, in spite of everything you’ve experienced and seen, you still have doubts, don’t you?”

“Not often, but yes, I do. My faith isn’t strong enough, I’m afraid.”

“It has nothing to do with faith. A good helping of doubt goes with being human – I think it’s coded into the genes.” She took his left hand in hers. “The world won’t accept the truth, so we have to devise a story they can believe. Elise DuBois is gone. No-one will miss her or come looking for her body. She was kidnapped, she vanished – just another tragedy to add to the catalogue of the world’s misfortune. She was getting to be a liability anyhow; she’d got too famous, too prominent in medical research and too well-known the arts and crafts world. The miraculous healing was the last straw – the Legacy were so keen to drag that out into the public eye – and if they had, it wouldn’t have been safe to be Lise anymore. It was time to move on from that life,” She paused, and her voice became higher and brighter, as if laughter bubbled close to its surface. “I have a new face now and a new name to go with it, Melissa SaintClair. My friends will call me Lissa, I think, and I’ll claim to come from England. I’ll have to lose the accent, which will be a shame, and I’ll work in… Oh, I don’t know – maybe I’ll be a dancer or an actress. I have to admit that I’ll miss the silversmithing business. Perhaps I’ll be a sculptor this time around, or maybe a potter. Do you think I could throw good pots?”

“You’ve done this before, haven’t you? Stepped into a new life, I mean?”

“Many times.”

“How old are you?”

“What answer would you be comfortable with?” Lissa shrugged, that old, familiar gesture. “A century or two? A thousand years or five thousand?”

“The truth.”

“In the long term, the truth has no meaning.” Her wedgwood-blue eyes were suddenly sad. “And I’ve lived for a very long time.”

Derek watched her for a moment. “Were you really Elise? I mean, I’m almost convinced, but…”

“What is it with you, Dr Rayne? There’s always a ‘but’…” She giggled. “Okay then, here’s the proof, the acid test. Close your eyes.”

When he did, she leaned close and kissed him. There was warmth and affection in the kiss, and a hint of nervousness.

Still think I’m a fake? Her thoughts whispered inside his head. An imposter wouldn’t feel the same.

At long last, Derek smiled. “Mam’selle DuBois herself, risen from the grave! Sloan told me you would, but I didn’t believe him. So, where do we take it from here?”

“You have your old life and I need to build my new one, so we go our separate ways, for now,” she said lightly, to soften the blow. “That doesn’t mean we can’t see each other from time to time. If you need a partner for some function, just call me. I can be anyone you want – and won’t that give the gossip columns something to goggle at, Derek Rayne with a different beauty on his arm at each glittering event?”

“Why do you have to go?”

“It’s dangerous to stay. Everyone’s still looking for Elise and I kept too much of her in my new look. Your fault, I’m afraid – sentiment stopped me from going for a more radical change.” She confessed. “It isn’t easy to create a new identity, but I’ve learnt a few tricks that help. One is distance; if you cut all your old ties and move far away then no-one will recognise you and get suspicious. Another is to keep moving from city to city, until the trail’s cold. Jacob’s rewritten my life-history in silicon, so I can pick up the thread of it in Brussels to start with, and then wander on – maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam, maybe I’ll go to Rome…” She stood up suddenly, in a swirl of ash-blonde hair, and edged away from the bench. “So, this isn’t really goodbye, mon cher – it’s au revoir!”

Then she was moving, slipping away from him, and he felt his heart sinking again.

“Wait!” He called after her. “Is that it? After all that, you just walk out of my life?”

She turned around. “What else would you have me do?”

“I could buy you a coffee…” Or lunch, perhaps, he thought, gazing at this blonde known-stranger, or rent a room somewhere and… He wondered how different her body would be, how the fresh curves of it would feel under his hands. He imagined that the pale spun-silk of her hair would smell of new-mown hay and her skin taste of cream and honey when he kissed it.

“And Elise not even cold in her grave!” Melissa laughed, holding her hands out to him. “Coffee, then. Come along!”

Derek took her arm. “And the rest…?”

“Maybe.” She said evasively, yet there was a sudden, familiar glint of mischief in her eyes. “Still, Lissa is very inexperienced in such things. She’s very new to this – she was only born this morning.”

“Don’t worry, chérie,” Derek grinned. “She’ll have a very good teacher!”

They walk away along the shore, the man and woman, arm in arm. The scene fades into shades of grey, then down into black. A single word appears on the screen.

Fin.

 

Credit where credit’s due:

The characters and premise of Poltergeist: the Legacy were created by Trilogy Entertainment and are copyright MGM/UA Distribution Co Inc.
Various lines of poetry, prose and lyrics are scattered throughout the text and were taken from the works of Geoffrey Ashe, Duncan Browne, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, G K Chesterton, Dante, W H Davies, P Kavanagh, John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, Marie Lloyd, Joni Mitchell, Richard O’Brien, Mike Oldfield, Christina Rossetti, Charles Schultz, William Shakespeare, Richard Thompson, William Whiting, Oscar Wilde and W B Yeats.

My information on the Glastonbury Giants was taken from a pamphlet by Mary Caine, printed by Grael Communications, Torquay.

With special thanks to Dubricus, for her help with locations in the San Francisco area and for agreeing to make a guest appearance in the story.

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