Harrowing of Hell – Part Three

The Chalice Well was in a garden nestling in the shadow of the Tor, aptly situated on the sign of Aquarius, the Water-bearer.

“Le Verseau – in this zodiac it’s drawn as a phoenix, with the Tor as its head, which puts the well in its beak,” Elise said, parking the Land Rover by the gift shop. “Aquarius is my sign, the dreamer with her head in the stars.”

Derek shook his head. “You’re Taurus, if your birthday’s tomorrow.”

“Which is why it isn’t!”

They found Tania at the well with a small group of people clustered about her.

“You’re late.” She glanced up from where she leant over the brown-stained spring to fill the pseudo-grail with water. “I thought you’d changed your minds.”

“No chance,” Elise said, grinning.

“It’s become our custom to share this sacred water before venturing into the underworld.” Tania straightened up, holding the brimming cup between her hands. “An unholy communion, if you like. We drink to call down blessing on our journey tonight, to summon luck to carry with us on the long path towards dawn.” She took a mouthful of water, then offered the grail to Derek. “Taste the magic, if you choose to, then pass the cup on.”

He took the silver vessel from her, hesitating for only a second before he drank. The water was bitter and very cold.

Elise took it from him, wrinkling her nose at the taste. “Too much iron! I’m surprised you dare drink it, Tania, for fear it might curdle your faery blood!”

“I’ve developed a tolerance for the traditional banes,” the woman admitted. “Life would be rather difficult otherwise.”

The grail passed widdershins around the circle, finally returning to Tania, who poured out the last of the water on the grass as a libation. “Let’s go.”

Various members of the group collected bags, blankets and rucksacks from their cars, and they headed for the Tor. On the way, most people introduced themselves and Derek wondered at the strange mix of age and sexes. Serena and Lucy were two local teenage girls who’d told their parents they were going to a rave. Ruth was a quiet woman in her forties; she was a writer and a painter. Rob and Nathan seemed to be from the ranks of Tania’s protest friends, serious young men wearing Greenpeace and PeTA T-shirts. The Frobishers were an elderly couple; he had a tweed hat adorned with a feather and used a walking stick, while she was wrapped in a maroon velvet cloak and wore multiple necklaces that clinked constantly. The only one who failed to speak to them was a man with extensive, faded tattoos who looked to be an ex-soldier; he nodded and almost smiled.

It took them some time to reach the top of the Tor. Derek had forgotten it was such a climb, up a stony path that wound to and fro, with uneven concrete steps at its steepest points; truth be told, his memories of the last time he’d been up here, following the serpentine route of the maze around the curves of the hill, were blurred and untouchable. Tania and the youngsters forged ahead, Elise stayed at his side and Ruth kept pace with them, while the Frobishers lagged behind. Last of all came the silent man, who paused to help Mrs Frobisher up the steps and carried the couple’s picnic hamper. Tania selected a spot on the north side of the tower, groundsheets and blankets were spread out over the damp grass and the group settled down. The Frobishers drank coffee from a flask, handing out cups of it to anyone who wanted, along with thick slices of fruit cake. Ruth produced a quiche, a selection of cheesy bites and a box of red wine. The lads had potato crisps and cans of cheap lager, which they shared with the girls.

The sun set in a pale wash of copper and honey-gold, glazing the slate-blue sky. In the town below, streetlights began to come on in a sodium-yellow imitation of nature. Up on the Tor the twilight engulfed them, growing deeper as the stars appeared. The moon was on the wane, wrapped up tightly in cloud and casting no light. The silent man pulled three candle-lanterns out of his rucksack and lit them, placing them in a triangle at the centre of the group. A cool breeze came out of the east, making the flames flicker.

“Are we expecting rain?” Derek asked, recalling his English manners.

“They said on the radio we might have some,” Mrs Frobisher said,  pulling her cloak tighter about her. “What do they know anyway?”

“It’ll stay dry.” Elise predicted, sniffing the wind. “The clouds will linger and it may rain tomorrow, but not tonight..”

“What magic do you use to tell that?”

“Pilot sense – if you fly, you learn to read the weather. I’ll bet you can do it too.”

If Derek had expected a solemn, silent vigil, he would have been disappointed. The atmosphere was that of an impromptu party – they ate, drank and chatted as if they were camped out in somebody’s  living-room and not on a dark hillside. Lucy sang, her repertoire stretching from local folksong to chart hits, while Serena and the lads did backing vocals. Ruth recited a poem, the Lady of Shalott, in the clear, confident tones of an accomplished storyteller, and Mr Frobisher did a comic monologue about the Battle of Hastings. The silent man pulled a pennywhistle out of his rucksack and played slow, mournful Irish airs. Only Tania took no part in the revels, sitting as still as a stone. Time slipped away, the night grew darker and the stars burned all the brighter. The Frobishers moved closer together, the youngsters huddled in a heap like puppies and Ruth took her blanket over to the silent man, who smiled and gratefully shared it.

Elise snuggled up to him. “Cold?”

“A little.” His breath misted on the air. “What are we waiting for?”

“The right time. The moment when material reality thins and we can step through to otherwhere.”

“How will we know when that happens?”

“She knows.” Elise nodded towards Tania.

The woman was letting down her hair, unwinding each pin-curl and combing it out with her fingers, until the whole mass of it was free, a flaxen mane that hung below her waist. She discarded her jacket and stood up, a pale figure against  the darkness. The starlight was drawn to her, trickling over her uplifted face, running along her arms and pooling in her hair. No longer did she seem just an ordinary woman, no longer just a traveller and eco-warrior – those masks slipped away to reveal her true self, a fey, mystic creature. Derek felt the change in her and shivered. She raised her arms in supplication and began to chant. At first he could make out no words; when he did, he couldn’t recognise the language.

“That song was old when the Earth was still young.” Elise murmured. “Few know it now, the tongue of the Fair Folk. No mortal language comes close to it in grace and beauty, although Tolkien captured a touch of it in his Elvish.”

“What’s she doing, casting a spell?”

“Weaving a path for us out of faith and smoke. Watch now!”

The woman was outlined in a white nimbus of starlight that followed her slow, sinuous movements as she swayed, caught up in her song. Beyond her, something took shape in the darkness, a thing of mist made solid. In a matter of minutes it was there, a cave-mouth created from nothing, a gateway to another world. It hung in mid-air some thirty feet from the Tor, a mirage. There was no way across to it that Derek could see.

“C’est fini.” Elise stood up. “Come along, everyone!”

The group roused themselves from stasis. The silent man went first, striding across the empty space as if he walked on an invisible bridge and passing through the archway. Ruth was next, and then the Frobishers vanished into the blackness of the tunnel framed by the spectral cave-mouth. The youngsters ran across to the gate, laughing and chasing each other. Elise took Derek’s hand, pulling him towards the unknown, but he baulked as they drew level with Tania.

“Trust me.” Elise squeezed his hand. “Un peu, just this much…”

Discarding logic, Derek stepped out onto nothing, keeping his weight back on his heels, convinced he was about to fall. He didn’t; there was an illusion of soft, springy turf underfoot and he walked forwards in amazement.

“Just like a kitten on glass!” Tania chuckled.

As he went through the arch, Derek stepped from night back into twilight. The others had waited for them and they let Tania take the lead. They walked on an indistinct path obscured by mist, through a forest of immense, ancient oaks. There seemed to be a sky overhead, lit with brilliant stars. Derek felt that their progress was being watched, that something lurked in the shadows between the trees, but he could see nothing in that darkness. He leaned close to Elise, unwilling to raise his voice above a whisper. “Where are we?”

“This is Annwn.” She answered just as quietly. “A shortcut to where we need to go. We have leave to pass through these lands.”

The forest was silent around them, mysterious and full of secrets. There was no evil here, just an otherworldly sense of nostalgia and regret. It seemed that they walked for hours along the serpentine path, but Tania led them surely, choosing the way at each fork and crossroads without a pause. The mist grew thicker on their left and at the heart of it loomed a figure, a man mounted on a moon-coloured horse, with a pack of pale hounds clustered about its hooves. Cloaked in grey, he wore a set of stag’s antlers on his forehead. He bowed his head as they went by. Tania acknowledged the gesture with a haughty nod.

“Who was that?” Derek asked, when the figure had vanished back into the fog. “Gwyn-ap-Nudd?”

“He has other names, if you prefer them; Herne the Hunter, Cernunnos, the Horned God or Oberon,” Elise said. “Tania’s ex.”

They came to the edge of the forest quite suddenly, stepping out of the misty twilight and into a cold grey gloom as dull and oppressive as a rainy day. Before them was a cliff-face of ugly brown granite stretching away in either direction as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by a wide gothic archway set with rusty wrought-iron gates of the sort usually found in old, neglected cemeteries. They stood open and without hesitation, Tania led them through.

“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here?” Derek asked, as he followed.

“Oui, c’est vrai, the gates of Hell,” Elise said. “Is it as you’d expected?”

Beyond the archway, they emerged into the first of a series of caves. Infrequent torches and cressets provided pockets of light and a haze of smoke. The air was dry and hot, with an acrid sulphurous taint that made his sinuses itch. His psychic senses prickled with unease and he was almost sure he could hear distant human voices crying out in fear and pain, although there was nothing, alive or otherwise, to be seen. “I’m not sure what I expected…”

Elise touched his arm gently. “Stay close to me.”

The rest of the group seemed to have no misgivings about their surroundings, but presumably they’d been here before. They reached a vast cavern with many troubling shadows lurking at its edges, and Tania halted.

“We usually split up here, to cover more ground,” she said, turning to Elise. “Is that still the plan?”
“It was never my intention to disrupt the harrowing.” The silversmith confessed. “It’s true that we have an errand here, but that needn’t…”

“Hi, Derek!”

The familiar voice made him jump. Whirling to face it, he saw Kat standing there, grinning at him.

“Yo, Kitten!” Tania waved at the child. “Glad you could join us.”

Several members of the group called out a greeting to the girl – Ruth, Lucy and the Frobishers. The silent man saluted her, adding one of his rare smiles.

“Almost didn’t make it – it’s a bit early back home. Mom thinks I’m doing my homework.” Kat skipped up to them. “Hey, Elise! How are you doing? Are you keeping him out of trouble, huh?”

“Doing my best, Kitty-kat…”

Derek caught Elise by the shoulder, swinging her around to face him. “What on earth were you thinking of, bringing her here? What perverted kind of madness is this, dragging a child into this awful place?”

“It isn’t my doing…”

“I came on my own, Derek,” Kat cut in, with uncharacteristic irritation in her voice. “I may be a kid back in San Francisco, but in this company I’m treated as an equal. This isn’t the first time I’ve been on a harrowing.”

“But you might get hurt!” he protested. “How did you get here anyway?”

“I’m dreaming.” Kat struck out at him and he flinched as her hand swept right through him. “I have no substance. I can’t be harmed in this form, so it’s perfectly safe.”

“This is Hell, Kat! You shouldn’t be here…!”

“Derek, don’t be a bore! You have no right to lecture me – you aren’t my father!” She couldn’t hold on to the pretend anger and her grin broke through. “And it’s not like you never took a risk yourself, is it?”

“I think she has you there!” Elise agreed. “Your moral high-ground’s a little shaky underfoot. I don’t think you can mount a defence!”

Derek forced his anger down and managed a smile. “Did you say that you’d been here before?”

Kat shrugged. “Three or four times.”

“She’s numbered amongst the wise.” Tania added, her elfin face radiant with affection and pride. “Our Kitten has a brave and compassionate heart, and a true and pure soul.”

“Don’t lay it on too thick, Fairy Godmother!” Kat grimaced. “Now, are we going to chat all night or are we going to help some trapped people? If Mom comes up to my room and wakes me, I’ll be outta here!”

“Walk with me, little one.” Tania offered.

Insubstantial though she was, Kat took the woman’s hand. “See you, Derek, when you get back from England.”

He watched them vanish into one of the tunnels, while others of the group drifted off into other caves.

“She’ll be fine,” Elise said. “We should go too. This way.”

He let her lead him into a narrower, darker cavern. “Where are the demons?”

“We won’t see any. According to custom, they stay out of our way.” She was moving quickly, choosing a random path between the many irregular stone pillars that grew out of the floor of this cave, stalagmites not much taller than a man. “We will see the damned though, as we go deeper into Hell.”

Derek glanced at some of the pillars as they passed; some seemed to have been carved into roughly human shape. As they progressed, the forms became more defined, but it was only when one of the tortured, twisted statues moaned as he brushed past it that the truth hit him like a steamroller. “Verdomme! These are people, turned to stone! My God, some of them are still aware!”

“It isn’t all fire and pitchforks.” Her tone was light, but he heard the suffering embedded in it. “Some torments can be quite inventive… “

“How can you bear to be here?” Derek reached across to touch her cheek and felt the dampness of tears beneath his fingers. “With your gifts you can hear their thoughts, share their pain… How can you stand it?”

“It hurts. The trick is not minding.” She kissed his hand. “We must move on, mon cher. We can’t help these poor creatures. They’ve been frozen too long.”

He wasn’t sorry to leave that cave behind. As they entered the next, it felt like walking into a solid wall of fear. The air was full of cries, groans and sobs. His Sight reared up in panic, urging him to turn and run; he silenced it, gritted his teeth and went on. In the crimson half-light, he saw a dozen men and women partially trapped in stone, some encased up to their hips, some pinned to the cavern walls by bands of rock looped around ankles and wrists. Several were bound under cataracts of fire and burns covered the exposed areas of their bodies. One man stood under a fall of filthy yellow water and his skin had been eaten away, as if by acid. In the centre of the room, the damned were in the process of being swallowed by columns of stone; where they struggled to free themselves, their limbs were scarred with festering old ulcers and bleeding new wounds. The aura of pain that surrounded them was almost visible. Derek imagined it as a black miasma and he saw Elise wince as they skirted the tortured souls.

“Here.” She stopped beside one of the damned, a young woman hung against the rock face as if she’d been crucified, with iron spikes through her wrists and shoulders. Blood dripped slowly from the wounds. The granite enveloped her up to the thigh, hugging her so tightly that her legs were twisted and broken. She wept constantly, caustic tears that etched raw, red channels across her face, down her neck and over her breasts.

Derek studied the poor soul with pity. “What can we do for her?”

“Ma soeur.” With difficulty, Elise found an unblemished inch of the woman’s skin to touch. “Little sister, speak to us.”

The woman opened her eyes, which were clear and very blue. “You aren’t demons… Who are you?”

“Friends. Tell us your story.” Elise gave an encouraging smile. “Why are you here?”

“I deserve this!” The woman tried to turn her face away from them and the flow of burning tears increased. “I’m guilty, I deserve to suffer! I killed her, murdered her, my own sweet baby, my little daughter!”

“How?” Elise pressed. “How did you kill her?”

“She was ill, so very ill…” The woman said, through sobs. “I took her to the doctors, but they couldn’t save her. She died, in spite of everything they did. She was so tiny, still a baby… They said if I’d brought her sooner, they might have cured her. You see, it was my fault she died. I was to blame. I killed her!”

“Hush, hush! Be still!” Elise cooed, cradling the woman’s chin in one hand and wiping away her flood of tears. The acid had no effect on her fingers. “Don’t you hear what you’re saying? You didn’t kill your daughter – her illness did. Some diseases are so overwhelming, so lethal that nothing can be done to prevent death…”

“I killed her,” the damned woman insisted. “And, when I couldn’t face life without her, I killed myself!”
“Ah, a suicide. You poor dear!” Elise said, gently. “And yet you’ve paid for your sins, real and imagined. You’ve been here a long time, I can tell that. Don’t you think you’ve suffered enough?”

As if waking from nightmare, the woman stopped weeping and looked at them. “You really aren’t devils here to torment me, are you?”

“We are friends,” Derek said, unable to just stand by and watch the drama unfold in front of him. “We want to free you from this place.”

“Free? How can I ever be free?” The woman laughed harshly. “God will never forgive me for what I’ve done!”

“He doesn’t have to,” Elise said. “Forgive yourself – that’s all it takes.”

“It’s that easy?” The woman shook her head. “It can’t be – or why are we all still here?”

“I didn’t say it was easy. Just ask yourself this – have you suffered enough?”

The woman paused and Derek held his breath. He saw something kindle in her blue eyes – hope. In a small voice, she gave her answer. “…yes…”

Elise let out a whoop of delight, which rang around the stone walls and shocked the tormented souls into silence. She leaned forwards and kissed the poor woman on her ruined cheek.

The rock holding the woman crumbled and fell to dust. The iron spikes dropped away in rusty flakes. Astonished by her freedom, the woman stumbled forwards and Derek caught her before her shattered legs could give way. She healed before his eyes, becoming whole again in a matter of seconds – he felt the passing miracle tingle across the palms of his hands – then she dissolved into a glory of golden light. Just before her face melted away, he saw her mouth the words ‘thank you’, and then she was gone, soaring through the solid rock like an inverse shooting star.

“It’s that easy.” Elise grinned at his stunned expression. “Gives you quite a kick, doesn’t it? It can be pretty addictive…”

Behind them, someone giggled. They turned in time to see the man step out from the acid waterfall. He kept giggling like an idiot, as if he couldn’t believe it, as his skin renewed itself and he transformed into a comet of silvery light. After his departure, the cavern seemed very quiet.

Derek raised an eyebrow. “Was that a bonus? Two for the price of one?”

“Happens like that sometimes.” She shrugged. “Too many souls are here because of guilt, misplaced blame or a desire to punish themselves for a fault only they can perceive. The trick is to get them to look past that. Even here, even in the heart of despair, freedom is only a step away.”

“What about the truly evil?” He followed her into the next cave. “Serial killers, rapists, terrorists – what about them?”

“This game is played by your Church’s rules. First purgatory, then remorse, then repentance; after that, whatever your sin, you can receive forgiveness.” She frowned. “Can’t say I’d have planned it like that, but then, as some people will tell you, I’m the vindictive type.”

“You? Never!” Humour didn’t feel right here and he rapidly grew serious again. “Will Kat see souls in agony like this? I mean, she’s so young. I’m not sure she ought to be exposed to such intense suffering and pain.”

“Being in the dream-state insulates her from the worst of it. She doesn’t experience all of the horror – it’s more like a scary film to her. She also has the ultimate escape-pod; if something upsets her, she can just wake up.”

Derek looked into her face; did he imagine it, or did her skin have an unusual pallor? “We don’t have that choice, do we?”

“We don’t need it,” she said, with enviable confidence.

They moved on, wandering from cave to cave, sometimes finding a receptive soul who’d listen to them, but mostly ignored by the damned. Derek began to develop an instinct  for deciding who to approach; he freed a teenage girl from an pit of boiling tar and a woman from a barbecue of hot coals. Elise had a higher success rate – if the truth be told, he would have been disappointed if she hadn’t. An aura of calm spread around her and such was her inner radiance that she turned the darkness back on itself in the blackest parts of the underworld. He followed her as if in a dream, watching in fascination as she argued several souls free of damnation and freed others just with a touch.

On several occasions they saw other members of the group; Lucy singing to a young man suspended by his heels from a hook, Mrs Frobisher sitting cross-legged on the rock to talk to a woman buried under a cairn of sharp stones, and the silent man standing beside an old woman frozen into a great lump of ice, just smiling at her and stroking her hair, until the ice melted, the water boiled away into steam, and she vanished in a bright sunburst of light.

Derek didn’t notice at first that Elise was leading him away from the centre of things. Fewer of the caves had their quota of tormented souls and there were less torches to disrupt the darkness. They passed through three empty caverns and began to cross a fourth, then Elise abruptly halted.

“What?” He almost ran into her.

“Don’t you feel it?”

He did – his psychic senses were buzzing again. The shadows rolled into the centre of the cavern and shaped themselves into demonic flesh, an ink-black creature with bat-wings and the face of a snarling dog.

“You!” Elise snapped. “Go chase a stick, why don’t you!”

“Insolent witch!” The beast growled. “You won’t go any further. I won’t allow it!”

Elise sighed. “You know what we’ve come for. One small soul – he doesn’t even belong here. The dead are yours, but this is the soul of a living man, trapped here through no fault of his own. Give him up, give him to us and we’ll leave. Deal?”

“Why should I bargain with the likes of you? I am the guardian of this quarter of Hell. If you try and pass me, I’ll kill both of you!”

“Will you indeed, dog-breath?” Elise examined the nails of her left hand, flexing her fingers as if they were talons. “Let me rephrase our request – we want Sloan’s soul. Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way…”

The wolfish muzzle split in a broad, toothy grin. “As I recall, the last time we met, we did it the hard way. It was a blast – you pack quite a punch for a witch-bitch!  I’ve been looking forward to the rematch!”

Derek leaned closer to the woman. “Don’t pick a fight with this creature! You can’t beat it.”

“You think not?” There was a dangerous green glint in her eyes and he realised that she didn’t share his fear of the demon. “How do you want Spot here – sliced, diced or pulped?”

“I’ll rip your throat out for that, Wiccan trash!” The demon snarled, crouching to spring. “I’ll snap your bones and suck the marrow out…!”

“Cease.”

The voice came out of the darkness, the single word delivered with no particular weight or emphasis behind it, but an order nonetheless. A man stepped out into the light, seeming at first glance to be no more than human, perhaps a wealthy executive or the eldest son of an old, aristocratic family. He looked to Derek disturbingly like a taller, blonder version of Brad Pitt. There was a hint of menace about him – he wore evil like a splash of cologne. The dog-faced demon cowered away from him, instantly obedient and afraid.

“I didn’t anticipate such entertainment.” He looked them over with an air of icy amusement. “Do you think it wise to engage in this battle, little demon?”

“Yes, oh yes!” The beast gazed up at its master, its brown eyes pleading. If it had possessed a tail, it would have wagged it. “Let me kill them for you, lord!”

“You’re a fool, hound of Belial, to even threaten her.” The blond man’s voice was as smooth and sickly as honey. “Don’t you know what she is?”

“She’s just a witch, lord, one of that accursed coven that mounted an attack on us last week.”

“Just a witch, eh?” His smile was razor-sharp and cruel. “That’s so far off the mark I’m surprised she’s not laughing. Hello, Lise.”

She didn’t return the smile. “Hi, Luce.”

Derek had hoped that his guess about the newcomer’s identity was wrong, despite the fact that he was a dead ringer for Nick’s description of Elise’s dinner companion. If this really was the Devil, he didn’t see how they could get out of this stand-off alive.

Lucifer peered at him with arrogant contempt. “Is this your precept?”

“I don’t own him!” Elise replied, huffily.

“Neither do I – yet,” the arch-fiend replied. “Forgive me, where are my manners? The Legacy’s finest, Dr Derek Rayne. I really am delighted to meet you at last.”

“I’d like to say I shared that pleasure, but I’d be lying!”

Lucifer laughed, making the dog-faced demon cringe away. “There’s no need for such hostility between us, Dr Rayne. Tonight I’m bound by ancient custom and must let the living walk through my realm unmolested. Come, take tea with me and let’s talk. Even mortal enemies may make a truce and parley — isn’t that so?”

“Luce, we don’t have time for this!” Elise snapped. “Give us the trapped soul and we’ll get out of your hair.”

“I have many trapped souls in my keeping,” the Devil said, playing it dumb. “Which particular one did you want?”

“The live one.” The dog-faced demon growled. “Azazel’s pet.”

“Be silent, Joval!” Lucifer’s left hand twitched a fraction and the demon was hurled to the floor. It curled into a tight ball, hugging its legs in to its chest and wrapping its wings around itself, whining very quietly, like a child sobbing.

“That was unnecessary.” Elise observed. There was an icy edge to her voice that made the hair prickle on the back of Derek’s neck. He was glad he couldn’t see her face. “Give us Sloan’s soul – now!”

“Or what?” Lucifer sneered. “Would you fight me?”

She didn’t answer, combing her hair back from her face, rolling up her sleeves and stepping out of her shoes.
“Whoa!” The arch-fiend recoiled, raising his hands to ward her off. “God’s teeth – you’re fucking serious, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m serious. I’ll do whatever it takes to free this soul.”

Lucifer paused, then shook his head. “I can’t help you – and that’s can’t, not won’t. Your man is trapped in the nexus between Hell and Earth, and that’s one door that can’t be opened from this side. The druids’ arks contain a pocket of space, Azazel’s private limbo. I have no power there, no means to bring your lost soul out. If you want him that badly, you’ll have to unseal the gateway from the other side.”

“You’d like us to do that, wouldn’t you?” Derek said. “Open the portal to Hell and give your legions free passage into our world?”

“Sounds like a fun party!” Lucifer agreed. “How about if we didn’t attend – no RSVP, no show?”

“You wouldn’t take advantage of the portal?” Elise repeated. “It isn’t like you to be so reasonable.“

“There would undoubtedly be a price for such a favour.” Derek guessed, with an ominous gut-feeling.

“I barter souls, Dr Rayne – that’s my field of expertise. How about a swap? One in for one out…” He saw the change in the woman’s expression and shrugged. “Only joking! I have my own agenda and unleashing the fury of Hell on the upper world isn’t one of my current projects. We’re saving ourselves for the end of the millennium. That whole Y2K thing is just too tempting!”

“I’m disappointed in you, for falling for the hype,” Elise said. “You know that the date’s wrong. The Son of Man was born in 6 B.C.”

Derek didn’t understand how she could be so flippant at a time like this. “What chaos are you planning?”

“Chaos is a little on the mild side; what I have in mind is pandemonium.” He rolled that word on his tongue as if it was wrapped in chocolate. “After all, a lot of people are expecting Armageddon. It would be a shame to disappoint them.”

“What about the other lords of Hell?” Elise asked. “They may oppose your decision.”

“I’ll take care of those wimps!” Lucifer chuckled. “Your problem will be my five fallen brothers.”

“We can’t trust him!” Derek exclaimed, appalled that she’d even consider making a pact with the Devil. “He trades in lies. Why would he keep his word?”

“It’s in his nature to keep faith.” Elise half-turned to him and winked. “Once an angel, always an angel!”

“Lise, you go too far!” Lucifer raised his left hand in an odd parody of benediction. “I won’t stand for it!”

Derek scarcely saw the fireball before it hit them, a blast of blue flame that lifted them clean off their feet and hurled them across the cavern. It happened too rapidly for him to be afraid – all he was aware of was being thrown through the air with the Devil’s laughter ringing in his ears. Elise gripped his arm and twisted around him; when they hit rock, she was underneath, cushioning his body from the worst of the impact. He knocked the breath out of her, slid sideways and struck his head on the cave’s wall. The last thing he remembered hearing was a muttered curse “…merde..!”

***

When Derek awoke, he was back on the Tor. The sky overhead was grey and lucid, with that peculiar quality it has just before dawn. He lay under one damp blanket, with Elise curled up beside him, deeply asleep, her head heavy on his shoulder. There was dew on her hair, which smelt fresh and earthy, like the fur of a cat come in from the rain. He moved her gingerly, but she didn’t stir. There were no bruises on her face, nor on her arm, which he covered with the blanket. When he touched the side of his skull where it had crunched against the rock there was nothing, no blood, no scab, no pain. He sat up, amazed at his lack of injuries.

The rest of the group were dead to the world, just scattered, slumbering bodies. The Tor rose out of a sea of mist like an island, as if history had turned back on itself, losing fifteen centuries overnight. After what he’d been through since yesterday, Derek could believe anything. He stood up carefully, wary of cramp in chilled muscles, and walked around the tower to get his blood moving and bring the warmth back to his limbs.

Tania was there, leaning against the stone, gazing out towards the west. Wearing a grubby violet fleece and with her hair tamed in a plait, she was back in her human disguise. Something glittered in her hand, a small silver flask.

“You’re the first to wake,” she said. “A clear morn, if a little cold. Not much of a start to summer, eh? Did you enjoy your trip to the underworld?”

“It was… interesting.”

The faerie-woman giggled. “It gets easier. Drink?”

He took the hip-flask from her and tipped some of its contents down his throat. It was sweet and sticky – at a guess, mead. Heat spread rapidly though him, banishing all of his residual aches and pains. He felt rested, as if he’d had a whole week of unbroken sleep. “Should I be drinking this? Is it safe?”

“Safe?” She smiled. “I gave up on magic potions around a century ago. Time was when I could make a man serve me for seven years with just one sip of the stuff – now you slip herbs into the coffee and they call it date-rape! No sense of humour, this modern world. That’s what I miss the most, the pranks, tricks and riddles. And you’re a fine one, aren’t you, to be worried about your safety at this point on the path? Open your eyes and take a good, hard look at your bedfellow. Sex with her is about as safe as skinny-dipping in an active volcano!”

Derek shivered, recalling his lover’s fierceness in the face of demons. “How dangerous is she?”

“I wouldn’t argue with her!” Tania confessed. “She wouldn’t hurt you though. Who do you think brought you back after your little run-in with the Morning-star?”

“I thought we were dead, when he threw that fireball at us!”

“He’s a showman, he likes his pyrotechnics. Can’t fault him for that – I was always a sucker for a pretty light-show. Of the three lords of Hell, he’s the easiest to deal with. Belial’s too sadistic and as for Asmodeus, the very sight of him makes you lose your lunch. Lucifer is like Elise and me. We can all pass for human, and over the centuries, we’ve learnt some manners.”

“How long has Elise known him?”

“As you count time, or as I do?” She asked, evasive. “Long and long, whichever scale you choose to measure it by. I wouldn’t say they were friends though – there are too many unresolved issues between them. Usually they’re content to ignore each other, which tends to be the prevalent attitude between most of us not-quite-human folks.”

There were many questions he wanted to ask, but he doubted if she’d give him any useful answers. Scraps of the lyrics of old ballads skipped through his head, Tam-Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. Her dealings with mortals hadn’t always been kind. She was a creature far older than his own species, able to access the hidden fountains and well-springs of magic. In her own way she was more dangerous than Elise, and he had no idea which side of the equation she was on. “It must be an interesting perspective for you, to sit on the sidelines in the battle between good and evil?”

“To be neutral, like Switzerland? Truth be told, I do derive a great deal of amusement watching the antics of the various churches and your own people. Oh, don’t get me wrong – I’m not an enemy of the Legacy – but there have been times when your stance was rather too officiously virtuous for my taste!”

“In any war, the viewpoints of the opposing sides are polarised – saints versus sinners, black versus white.”

“Some of us will always be grey.” She turned aside his argument with another sweet smile. “I am of the twilight and the mist; my colours are the pewter greys of the winter sky and the restless sea, the deep, dusky blues on the lake at evening, and the sad purples of violets under the hedge. Neither Heaven nor Hell – mine is the narrow track through fern, moss and madness, led by the elusive pale fires of will-o’the-wisps.”

“You must feel out of place in this modern world.”

“And you don’t? An exiled queen of enchanted lands and a paladin armed only with faith and truth who makes a valiant stand against demons – there’s little room for either of us in this sorry world. What we do can’t be measured under the cold, hard glare of science nor recorded in the soulless files of official records. Your path is much like mine, I guess; hiding the glamour beneath a gloss of normality, keeping secrets and avoiding outright confrontations with the media and the press. I have a few trusted friends who know of my true nature, but to the brain-washed masses I’m just a good-for-nothing traveller who chains herself to trees and digs tunnels in the mud to stop decent people building roads and runways.”

“Why do you take part in all these environmental protests?” Derek asked.

“I’m fey – and it’s in our blood to resist change.” She sighed. “No, that isn’t all of the truth. It’s my land, or at least it was once, the iron, rocky bones of it, the clear waters, the plants that grow on it and the creatures that creep over it. I can’t bear to watch Man spoil it, so I fight where I can.”

“And do you win?”

“Sometimes. We stopped them putting a cross on Pendle Hill – the very impertinence of it, to desecrate such a pagan place!” There was fire in her eyes, an eldritch purple spark. “They got the Angel of the North though, idiotic thing that it is!”

“You can’t fight the juggernaut of progress,” Elise said.

Derek wondered how long she’d been there, framed in the arch of the tower, wearing the blanket around her shoulders like a tartan cloak. She stepped through to join them, pausing to kiss him on the cheek. “Are you well this morning, mon cher? Any bruises I didn’t fix?”

“I’m fine.” He hugged her close. “What were you thinking, picking a fight with the Devil?”

“Moi? I did nothing!” She really did look innocent. “He has an unpredictable temper, that’s all. Hey, Tania, did Kat get home all right?”

“She stayed an hour, then her mother must have woken her up,” the faerie-woman replied. “She didn’t come back – she said she had to finish her homework. She’s a good child, very responsible. How about you, Healer? I understand that you left your own task undone?”

“We couldn’t rescue our lost soul.” Elise frowned. “He’s trapped in a limbo, caught between earth and Hell.”

Tania paused, turning to face her old friend. “And how much will you risk to free him?”

Elise met her gaze. “There’s no risk…”

“No, not again!” Tania cried out, curling her hands into fists as if she wanted to hit the silversmith. “Over and over, like some dumb, lovesick adolescent – will you never learn? It isn’t fate, it’s masochism! What does this bloody man do to you, to make your brain turn into water and run out of your ears?”

“We’ve had this argument before,” Elise cut in, wearily. “It was tedious then, and it’s boring now. Let it be, won’t you?”

Derek felt the undercurrent between them, a choppy sea with a perilous undertow. Before Tania could speak, Elise silenced her with a gesture. The Queen of Faerie shook her head and walked away.

“Elise?”

“Some things we disagree on.” She shrugged. “We’ve been friends for a long time. It means nothing when we fight like this.”

He had to leave it there – she wouldn’t be drawn out on the subject. Tania didn’t speak to them at all on the way down the Tor.

***

They got back to the George and Pilgrims in time for breakfast, packed up and settled the bill, then headed back to London. Elise took the wheel and Derek didn’t protest. It rained continually all the way, a dismal, grey day. No songs on this journey and little laughter; in fact, they hardly said anything at all. They reached Regent’s Park in a downpour. Elise parked and turned the engine off.

“Where do we take this from here?” Derek asked.

“We have a choice.” She didn’t look at him, staring past the rain-drenched windscreen, her eyes focused on the invisible. “We could leave Sloan’s soul where it is…”

“No.”

She sighed. “I knew you’d reject that option. I agree. He can’t remain as he is, a poor amiable zombie. That leaves us with only one way forward – to set up the sepulchres and open them.”

“And the Fallen will give us what we want, just like that?”

“We won’t have to keep the gateway open for long. Sloan’s soul will be seeking release. All we have to do is distract Azazel and his brethren for a matter of seconds.”

“Without being slaughtered?” Derek shook his head. “It won’t be as easy as you make it sound. Do you think that Lucifer will keep his side of the bargain?”

“Maybe.”

“Once Sloan’s free, we have to close the gateway again.” He shut his eyes, recalling the evil whirlwind that had almost swallowed them the last time and the sensation that still lurked in the corners of his nightmares, that the earth had been sliding towards the abyss of utter destruction. “How will we do that?”

“That’s my problem,” Elise said, grimly. “Not yours.”

***

Those words and the tone of her voice haunted him, slipping back into his head when he least expected it throughout his journey back to Angel Island. Again she refused to fly with him, saying that she had further business in Europe. Scolding himself for being so suspicious, Derek had Alex run an exhaustive search of the passenger-lists of every airline that had a plane going west over the Atlantic, using a forty-eight hour window starting from the moment he had left the Land Rover. The name ‘Elise DuBois’ wasn’t on any of them.

“Perhaps she uses an alias?” Alex suggested.

“Why would she? Who’s she hiding from?”

“You? The Legacy? Who knows?” The researcher said, in disgust. “I’m sure she’s paranoid enough to do anything! Do you know how well she hides her links to the Phoenix Project? I did a little digging in their database and there’s just one mention of her in the whole of it, naming her as executive director of the vaccine project. It’s what isn’t there that’s so weird – no contract, no personnel records, no records of any salary being paid – as if she’s just a figurehead who never actually does any work.”

Derek frowned. “I didn’t tell you to investigate Elise, did I?”

Alex blushed. “I thought I should run an in-depth background check, under the circumstances…”

The air in the room suddenly felt very cold, as Derek scowled. “Because I shared her bed?”

“Derek, I’m sorry!” She swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean to upset you, but you’d have done the same, if it had been one of us.”

He didn’t answer. He just turned on his heel and stalked away.

“Derek!” Alex buried her face in her hands. “Oh, hell!”

***

That set the tone for Derek’s mood for the rest of the day and it wasn’t improved when all of his calls to Elise went unanswered. By afternoon he was so restless that he couldn’t settle to anything, so he left the island and took the familiar route to her door. She answered the bell dressed only in a robe, her hair wet from the shower.

“Don’t you ever pick up the phone?” He couldn’t mask his irritation. “And when did you get back to San Francisco?”

“Who rattled the bars of your cage?” She kissed him, slowly and thoroughly, until his anger melted away. She tasted of milky coffee and chocolate flakes. “I flew in this morning.”

“Which airline?”

“I forget.” She shrugged. “Does it matter? Anyhow, I’m glad you’re here. I was just getting ready to pay a visit to another of my friends. You can come along for the ride.”

“Not another of your old acquaintances? What’s this one? A vampire, perhaps, or a werewolf?”

“Don’t be sarcastic, mon cher! Ursula’s only human.” Elise grinned. “She’s a witch, the high-priestess of the coven who helped me last week.”

“Don’t you know anyone normal?”

“Well, there’s you…” She laughed and shook her head. “No, nobody normal then!“

Derek hit her with a carefully-judged tackle that pitched them both onto the sofa, hauled her robe open and began to tickle her. His attack caught her off-guard; instead of soft, yielding flesh he found tensed muscles under his hands, and it crossed his mind that he might have made a bad mistake indulging in horseplay with this unknown quantity of a woman, then she relaxed, squirmed and started to giggle. He removed her robe, but during the skirmish he lost his jacket, belt and shoes, and was beaten about the head unmercifully with a cushion. She began to tickle him back, and somewhere in a breathless bout of laughter, he parted company with his trousers. After that, one thing inevitably led to another, leaving them both in a breathless, semi-clothed embrace. Derek reflected that it had been years since he’d had such gloriously spontaneous sex.

“Do you always play so rough?” Elise complained, with a lazy smile.

“La belle et le bête?” He wondered which of them best fit the role of the beast. “You didn’t have to fight like a vixen!”

“Yes, I did.” Although her tone was serious, he knew she was joking. “I don’t care for surrender, even in a pointless game.”

“Oh, I think you got my point!”

“Oui, you did ram it home a little forcefully..!”

“Did I hurt you?” He was suddenly concerned. “I didn’t mean to…”

“Don’t be silly!” She kissed him, but not before he’d seen a moist glitter at the corner of her eye, as if tears clustered there. “You couldn’t…”

She took her time getting dressed. He found some juice in her fridge, took it through to the bedroom and watched her dry her hair and choose a green velvet dress. “You wore that when you visited Kat at the hospital.”

“Such a memory!”

The bodice of the dress fastened with hooks and she had him do them up for her. The soft heaviness of its antique velvet felt old under his fingers, the ornate gold-work of its embroidery tarnished to dull gilt by time. “Which museum did you ‘borrow’ this from?”

“By the fire, you can sure hold a grudge!” She laughed, dancing away from him. “I had to steal your Green Man. That pretty little bauble was too cursed to leave alone.”

“I’m glad you did,” he admitted. “Or we wouldn’t have met.”

“Yes, we would – sooner or later we’d have stumbled into each other in the shadows. You’d have caught me sniffing around in Legacy business, or more likely, I’d have been forced to break cover and snatch you out of the claws of some demon or other…”

“You’re too late… Where were you when I was in the clutches of a lamia, or menaced by a mad priest, or fielding death-threats from a succubus?”

“Those little nuisances? You managed well enough on your own, didn’t you?”

“It wasn’t that easy. On several occasions I came within a hair’s breadth of death.”

She was in the process of trying to tame her glut of fiery hair, pulling two chunks of it back and fastening them with a clip; she paused and that sad look returned to her eyes. “You aren’t dead yet, mon cher. Near-misses don’t count.”

A hunch slid out of his hindbrain, whispering a heresy. “That premonition you had at the start of this. Was it my death you saw?”

“What?” She dropped the clip and lost her grip on her hair. “Damn it! No, Derek, of course it wasn’t you! J’ai tu dit, elle a été personne – I told you, nobody of any importance.”

“Who?”

She rearranged her hair and snapped the clip into place before she spoke. “A woman, one of Ursula’s circle. I’m sure that you don’t know her.”

“How does she die?”

“She’s attacked, stabbed… it all happens so quickly that I didn’t get a clear impression.” Elise shrugged. “It was just one of those dumb, random bits of precog that hit you out of nowhere, things you can’t do anything about, stuff that you can’t even warn the victims about or they’ll think you’re out of your mind. It might just have been static in the ether, a scrambled flash of a never-to-be future. Sooth-saying never was an accurate art. It can be very unreliable.”

She was lying – Derek was sure of it. “Someone will die when we open the portal to Hell. Who?”

“My precog wasn’t anything to do with that.”

“Is it a member of my House, and that’s why you won’t tell me?” He frowned. “Kristen? Nick, or Alex?”

Elise shook her head. “You’re looking for the bogey-man in the wrong closet, Derek. There’s no connection between what I saw and our intention to open the sepulchres.”

That was his cue to drop the subject – he heard the note of finality in her voice. “I think you’re being miserly with the truth again. Tell me what you saw.”

“I won’t.” She declared, as immovable as a rock. “What good would it do? I thought we’d agreed on this as the only way to save Sloan. You know the hazards – would you call the whole thing off because of an adverse premonition that’s probably a false alarm?”

“No, I wouldn’t abandon Sloan.” Derek confessed. “Even if you did foresee my death.”

“That’s my precept!” Elise grinned. “Now, we ought to go. We’re running a little late.”

They took the Explorer; although Elise had a driving licence, Derek had yet to see any evidence that she owned a car. She gave vague directions and they almost got lost twice before reaching their destination. The place was in Haight Street, a neat Victorian house clinging to the side of the hill, as pretty as any of the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square. Elise didn’t bother to knock; she just pushed the door and it swung open.

“Ursula’s home is protected by wards,” she said, when he lifted an eyebrow. “It only admits friends.”

The house’s decor was in period for the most part, although an open door to the study gave Derek a glimpse of a mass of computer equipment that looked as if it had been built from scratch. Elise led him through a bright, untidy kitchen, past two curious black cats and out into the garden.

A man waited for them under a plum tree, a tall, thin figure with a mane of dark, wavy hair longer than the silversmith’s, presently tamed in a ponytail. An old scar, white and puckered, twisted the corner of his left eye and cut across his cheek, its end vanishing into his beard. His eyes were grey and filled with utter tranquillity, a calm Derek had seen in few souls, except for Li Tzin Soong, and occasionally Elise.

“Hey, Jacob,” Elise said, unflustered by finding the wrong person. “We came to see Ursula.”

“She isn’t here and she won’t be back for a week.” He failed to smile. “If you want something – and I guess you do, or why else would you be here? – you’ll have to deal with me. Do you want to do the intros, Lisi, or shall I?”

“Derek Rayne.” She waved vaguely. “This is Jacob, Ursula’s significant other. Did she leave you in charge of the coven, wizard, or are you just house-sitting?”

“Great strategy – pave the way with insults. What’s your point?”

“We need your help.” Derek admitted.

“Do you? I like the irony of that, the Legacy coming cap in hand to us evil witches!” The tall man chuckled. “What is it you want?”

“There will be five, perhaps six of us, and we need enough of your people to make up a coven and ward a protective circle.” Elise explained.

“You need our protection? Why does that worry me?“ Jacob frowned. “Don’t tell me – this has to do with those bloody druids’ boxes?”

Derek hadn’t realised that the existence of his sepulchres was such common knowledge, yet none of Elise’s circle of friends were part of the mundane herd.

“A soul is trapped within them, a colleague of Derek’s.” Elise explained. “We’ve exhausted all other means of releasing him. This is the only way forward.”

“You’re going to free the Watchers and open Hell’s Gate?” Jacob whistled through his teeth. “I hope you realise that you won’t shut it again without a blood sacrifice?”

“I did before,” Derek said. “Twice.”

“That isn’t exactly true, is it?” Elise corrected. “Each time one of the sepulchres is opened, someone dies or is lost.”

Derek turned away, knowing she was right. Winston, Julia and then Sloan – the memories washed over him, threatening to drag him under once again.

“So how many do we lose this time?” the warlock asked quietly. “Have you seen that?”

“You won’t lose anyone,” Elise said. “And neither will the Legacy.”

Jacob took a step closer to the woman and looked into her peridot eyes. “Sweet Goddess, Lisi! This is a risky trip, even for you. Are you sure about this?”

“I don’t see any other way.”

The tall man bowed his head. “I’ll summon the coven. When?”

“How about Wednesday night?” Elise smiled tightly. “The fifth day of the fifth month – five was always my lucky number.”

“What colour candles do you want?” Jacob asked. “Black?”

“Look on the bright side, why don’t you?” She stuck her tongue out at him. “The ritual and stagecraft are your business. Do whatever thou wilt.”

As they turned to go, he called them back. “Hey, you ought to be aware of this. There’s a rumour on the occult grapevine that someone’s in the market for your demonic boxes. No names, of course, and no hint at the source of the interest, but there’s big money involved.”

“Who’d want the sepulchres?” Derek asked.

“Powerful magic items are always in demand.” Jacob frowned. “There are idiots out there who believe that they can control such forces and make them do their bidding. If I were you, I’d hike security on your island. Of course, if the things are stolen, you’ll have to call off the whole event…”

“And that’ll open up a whole new can of worms!” Elise declared.

“And Sloan will be lost to us forever.” Derek shook his head. “I can’t let that happen.”

***

When they got back to the apartment, Elise paused. “Do you want to come up? You’re welcome to stay.”

“In view of what your friend Jacob said, I ought to get back to the House. Why don’t you come with me?”

“Life with you won’t ever be boring – never the same bed twice!” She chuckled. “I’ll just need to collect some stuff.”

For some absurd reason, he didn’t want to let her out of his sight. “Let’s hurry then, or we’ll miss the next ferry.”

They were almost at the building’s entrance when three men melted out of nowhere, effectively surrounding them. In dark suits and raincoats, they could have been anything clear across the law-enforcement spectrum from FBI to NSA.

“Dr Rayne?” One of them flashed an ID card too rapidly for Derek to read it. “We’d like you and the young lady to come with us, sir.”

“Who are you…?”

“Please, sir, don’t be difficult.” The man opened his coat far enough to show that he carried a gun in a shoulder-holster. “Just get into that van behind you, and there won’t be any trouble.”

“The hell we will!” Elise snapped, the air around her abruptly seething with menace.

Derek caught her elbow, feeling the fury in her like a surge of static on his skin. He leaned close to murmur into her ear. “Back down! Do as they say.”

“What?”

The man at his back jabbed him in the ribs with what felt like a gun, concealed from public view by the folds of his coat. From the way Elise twitched, he imagined she’d been treated the same.

“Into the van!” directed the spokesman. “Or die – your choice!”

Derek allowed them to bundle him into the black vehicle, hanging onto Elise and dragging her after him. She was too reluctant for their captors’ liking; one of them aided their progress with a shove that sent the pair of them sprawling onto a heap of dirty blankets. Two of the men climbed in after them, shutting the doors quietly, without fuss. For a moment, they were in utter darkness, then one of the men turned a flashlight on them. The van moved off, slipping into the traffic at a leisurely speed.

Elise made a sound like a suppressed sob and buried her face in the side of his neck. He felt her breath on his skin, a whisper sizzling with rage. “When do I get to kill them? Just give me the word!”

He put his arms around her, as if comforting her. “You mustn’t! They might be police.”

“Yeah, right!” She made snuffly, weepy noises to cover her words. “You forget, I can see all their nasty perverted little thoughts! The guy up front with the driver is a hit-man and these two are petty crooks… Merde! What a time to get kidnapped!”

Derek kissed her forehead, hiding his lips in her hair. “Where are they taking us? I followed the first few turns, but I’m not sure where we are now…”

“Shut up!” The man with the flashlight swung it onto their faces. “Scared, is she? Not so fierce in the dark, huh, sweetheart?”

“Plenty more darkness where you’re going, honey!” the other added.

“Why have you taken us?” Derek let panic leak into his voice. “What are you going to do with us?”

“That depends on you, don’t it? Cooperate, like a good boy, and you won’t get hurt.”

“We ain’t making any promises ‘bout your girlfriend, though!” Flashlight-boy grinned. “But, hell, if you do as we say, maybe we won’t damage her too much when we rape her, huh?”

Elise whimpered, but he felt the anger burst in her again, nova-bright and deadly. “Easy, little vixen! Empty threats, that’s all!”

“No.” She had control of it, regaining a little calm. “It was you they wanted. I’m a bonus, a lever to use against you.”

He hugged her closer. “I won’t let them hurt you!”

Her fury winked out, like a snuffed candle flame, and she relaxed in his arms. She laughed, managing to shape the sound into more sobbing. “That’s my line, mon cher! I told Nick I’d be your bodyguard, remember?”

“Elise, they have guns..!”

“You think I can’t stop a bullet?” She made a tiny noise deep in her throat, a barely audible lupine growl. “Even a silver one?”

They were driven around for about forty minutes; Derek guessed that the van was following a very circuitous route, judging from the number of turns they made. At last they came to rest and the engine died. The two men opened up and indicated that they should scramble out.

The van had halted in an underground parking-lot, next to the elevator. The leader of the group joined them and they went up six floors. Under the fluorescent lights, Elise looked pale and shaken. She clung to his arm and Derek had to admit that she did the poor-female-terrified-out-of-her-wits act with a fair degree of skill; only up close was he aware of the savage green glint in her eye. He was aiming for cowed with an underlying thread of anxiety, which was fed by an inexplicable feeling of déjà-vu. When they were ushered out of the elevator and through into a penthouse apartment, the sense of familiarity persisted, even though he was sure that he’d never been here before.

Their captors herded them into a spacious room with ivory sofas and a glacial white carpet. Oil paintings in ornate gilt frames adorned the walls, mainly dark vistas and grey seascapes – no great works of art, any of them. Flashlight-boy closed the door behind them, then leaned against it, while the other two backed away. Derek felt isolated in the centre of the arctic space. Elise peered about her with the air of a rabbit caught in a snare.

The door facing them swung open and a man entered the room. Black hair, olive skin, predatory dark eyes and an infuriating smug smile of greeting – Derek knew him at once. “Arkadi!”

“Derek Rayne.” The man’s smile broadened. “As I recall, the last time we met, you called on me unexpectedly. This time, the tables are turned. Do introduce me to your delightful companion.”

Elise pinched his arm and a single word took shape inside his head. Don’t.

Derek kept silence, and most of the shock from his face.

“Oh, come now, don’t be tiresome!” Victor Arkadi said. “She’s a little too young for you, isn’t she? Good figure, nice hair – quite stunning, in fact, if she wasn’t so afraid. Who is she?”

“Why have me kidnapped if you didn’t know that?” Elise demanded, exaggerating her accent.

“You were taken because you were with him. Your misfortune.” Arkadi frowned. “Now, I want your name.”

“And I choose not to give it to you.” She folded her arms, edging away from Derek.

Arkadi snapped his fingers and the man on the right moved in, raising his gun with a theatrical flourish, until it was level with the woman’s forehead. “Tell me who you are – or I tell him to fire!”

Elise glanced sideways. “Il est con comme la lune!”

He’s a bloody fool! And he was, Derek thought, wondering which way it would be safest to jump when she cut loose.

All semblance of fear fell away from her. She straightened up to her full height and surveyed Arkadi with pity. “Do you think I’m afraid to die, as you are? Poor Victor, it eats at you, doesn’t it, that unavoidable terror? It takes the edge off all of your pleasures, taints all the satisfaction you should feel over your wealth and achievements. It walks in your nightmares, waking you with the grip of an icy hand about your heart – that awful notion that, one day, you will not be…”

“Shut up!” Arkadi reached up to loosen his collar, swallowing convulsively.

Elise smiled. “Go on – tell your man to fire. Dead or alive, I win…”

“Wait! I’ll tell you her name,” Derek said, afraid she might have pushed the man too far. When she glared at him, he shook his head slightly. “I won’t stand by and watch him kill you, chérie. She’s Elise DuBois, a silversmith.”

“An artist? Not your usual type, eh, Rayne?” Arkadi recovered his thin smile. “What do you see in this old fool, my dear? He’s slow-witted, foul-tempered, flabby and angst-ridden. I’m sure you could do far better.”

“With a coward like you?” She shrugged, dismissing the idea. “Non, merci!”

Arkadi nodded to the gunman, who lowered his gun and slapped Elise across the face with his left hand. It caught her wrong-footed, off balance. The thug shoved her backwards and she fell across one of the sofas. The sudden violence almost made her lose it – for a fraction of a second Derek was aware of the change in her, as if a trapdoor had opened in her soul, giving him a glimpse of seething, psychic fury – then she slipped back into character, passing for human once again.

“Sit down!” Arkadi ordered.

Derek obeyed, momentarily shaken by what he’d seen. Ice-cold, blue-white anger, as bright as Lucifer’s fireball, as blood-curdling as any demonic attack. Now he understood why that girl in Boston had freaked out at the experience.

“That’s better.” Their captor said, draping himself across a chair as if it was a throne, ignorant of his peril. “I expect you have questions – why I had you brought here, what it will take to obtain your freedom, that kind of thing, eh?”

“I’m sure you’ll give us the answers soon enough.” Derek sniped back.

Arkadi scowled. “It’s very simple, Rayne – so simple that even you can understand it. You have something that one of my clients wants. If you were a reasonable man I would buy it from you; since you are not, we must work out a trade.”

“Our freedom – for what?”

“Your freedom, Rayne.” Arkadi corrected. “She isn’t part of the deal.”

“Then make her part of it.” He glanced at Elise, who had subsided into untypical silence. “I’m sure I don’t want to bargain with you at all, but if you exclude her, I won’t even hear you out!”

“Ah, the hero act.” Arkadi chuckled. “The pretence that you actually care for her? How sweet! I suppose you need to use such tricks to buy sexual favours? Very well, I’ll agree to link her fate to yours, but be aware that if I don’t get what I want, she’ll die first.”

“What is it you want?” Derek demanded, hoping that his guess was wrong.

“A set of ancient wooden boxes, five of them, each with its own key.” Arkadi’s eyes glittered. “A client from the Far East has offered me a considerable sum if I can obtain them for his collection.”

Even though this man was his enemy, Derek felt he had to warn him. “Do you have any idea how dangerous they are? Each contains a powerful entity, creatures far more evil than that demon you cooked up in the lab.”

“You cloned a demon?” Elise asked, roused from her sulk.

“From a fragment of horn preserved by St Anthony.” Arkadi explained, smiling with pride.

“That little imp?” She sneered. “Compared to the denizens of the Druids’ arks, that demon would amount to little more than a gnat!”

“I don’t care what’s in them, I just want the five boxes!” Arkadi snapped. “A straight trade – five inanimate objects for your lives. What could be simpler?”

“The sepulchres aren’t inanimate.” Derek insisted. “They imprison fallen angels…”

“I told you, I don’t care!” Their captor raised his voice to drown Derek out. “You may contact the Legacy House and arrange for the boxes to be brought to me. I’ll tell you where I want to make the exchange…”

“That’s impossible,” Derek said. “The sepulchres are stored in vault that only I have access to.”

Arkadi paused, considering his options. “Is that true?”

“Call the House – they’ll tell you the same. Only I can unlock the vault.”

“I will call them. If you’re lying…?”

“Why would I lie to you?”

“Why indeed?” Arkadi laughed. “You’re right, Rayne, you wouldn’t twist the truth, not even to save your own skin! Don’t trust him to get you out of this in one piece, Miss DuBois; if it comes to a straight choice between you and his principles, then you’ll be the loser.”

“At least he has principles!” The silversmith retorted. “You can’t even spell it!”

Arkadi snapped his fingers. “Take Rayne down to the… um… guest accommodation… we have prepared for him.”

Flashlight-boy and the Hit-man hauled Derek onto his feet. “What about Elise?”

“She stays here, with me. A little pleasant female company to spice up a dull evening – what could be better?” Arkadi’s smile was decidedly nasty. “Perhaps I can tame her?”

Good luck! Derek thought, as he struggled against the two goons for effect as they propelled him across the room. Dear God, I hope she doesn’t kill him!

Just as he was yanked through the door, he caught a last glimpse of her, sitting demurely on the sofa with her hands in her lap and her legs neatly crossed at the ankle, looking for all the world like a well-behaved little girl. She gave no sign that she’d overheard his unspoken fear.

His captors manhandled him into the elevator and took him down to the basement. They marched him along a damp, featureless passageway and stopped to unlock a steel-reinforced door. The Hit-man went through his pockets, removing the cell-phone, his wallet, handkerchief and all his loose change, and helped him out of his overcoat and jacket. Flashlight-boy confiscated his belt and shoes, then pushed him unceremoniously into the room. He didn’t see much before the door slammed behind him, just a ten by ten concrete cube, blank except for a stack of mouldy newspapers and several dusty cardboard boxes, then there was only utter darkness. Derek stumbled on the uneven floor and fell to his knees. The blackness was absolute, so intense that he couldn’t see his fingers when he touched his palm to his nose.

“Great.” He rolled onto his back and scowled up at the invisible ceiling. “Just great!”

 

Go on to Part Four

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